100 Fossil Fuel Companies Responsible for 71 Percent of Carbon Emissions Since 1988 — And They’re Being Sued For it

According to research from the Carbon Disclosure Project, since 1988, 100 fossil fuel producers have been responsible for 635 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. This total represents 71 percent of human carbon emissions that have occurred over the past 29 years.

Companies involved in this massive carbon emission included such giants as ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP Billiton and Gazprom. The report also found that these 100 companies were responsible for fully 52 percent of all emissions since the industrial revolution began in 1751.

Report authors went on to point out that this relatively small group of companies is likely to have an outsized influence on responses to climate change — hopefully adding that positive action by such corporations could produce significant positive change. However, historically, such companies have tended to fight against global climate treaties, misinform the public on dangers related to human-caused climate change, and work to delay responses to climate change within their host nations. Due to this past bad-economic-actor behavior combined with rising climate change related damages, these corporations also are exposed to what may well be a historic and unprecedented corporate liability.

(If you were born in 2015, the estimate for your lifetime lost wealth from climate change, according to DEMOS, is between 581,000 and 764,000 dollars. With 100 companies responsible for 50 percent of that loss, it’s pretty obvious that liability will become a more and more serious impact as climate harms ramp up throughout the coming decades.)

A far-reaching liability that could well include various harms related to climate change coming from such diverse dangers as sea level rise, loss of water and food security, loss of habitability due to heat, and damage to valuable natural resources like forests, glaciers and reefs.

Already, a number of lawsuits are testing the legal waters in this regard. For example, in California this week, Imperial Beach, San Mateo and Marin counties are filing lawsuits to get some of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers to pay for sea level rise related damages. And if Imperial Beach and the two counties prevail, large corporations like Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP and Royal Dutch Shell could be liable for billions of dollars in mitigation costs and punitive damages in coming decades even as direct damages from climate change ramp up.

According to the San Diego Union Tribune:

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they modeled their legal tactics after past efforts to hold accountable cigarette businesses, makers of cancer-causing agents and gas and chemical companies that used methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive that has contaminated groundwater across the country.

And though not all liability related lawsuits against major tobacco and chemical companies were successful, those that stuck resulted in major awards even as the lawsuits themselves produced a very harmful public relations impact for the companies involved.

Leave a comment


  1. Perhaps too far behind to be much help, efforts to determine the value of ecosystem services might eventually define a loss to add to the 100’s liability.

  2. Bob

     /  July 27, 2017

    Childrens lawsuit suspended. How bad can this get? I was really counting on this attempt to right the wrongs. Sad day for justice.

    • From the article:

      “Tuesday’s decision does not directly address the Trump administration’s petition; it merely pauses proceedings in the case until further notice while the Ninth Circuit considers the request for review.

      At the time the Trump administration filed the petition, Erwin Chemerinsky, constitutional law expert and dean of Berkeley Law, told ThinkProgress via email that the petition was “truly extraordinary,” adding that such reviews are “rarely granted.”
      Attorneys for the plaintiffs expressed disappointment with the court’s decision to pause the case, but were hopeful that the court would eventually deny the administration’s petition for review.

      “It’s disappointing to have any potential delay when we’re in a danger zone on climate, but there will be no delay on our end,” Julia Olson, co-lead counsel for plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit supporting the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “We will continue to prepare for trial. We remain confident that we will be heading to trial and that the temporary stay will be lifted.””

      It appears that this review was extraordinary in that such halts to an active case are rarely granted. It also appears that it is unlikely that the hold will be indefinite or that the case will be thrown out. More likely is that a review will find moral and legal grounds for the case to move forward and be heard.

  3. wili

     /  July 27, 2017

    This seems like it could get rather…serious: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jul/24/thirsty-city-after-months-of-water-rationing-nairobi-may-run-dry

    “after months of water rationing Nairobi may run dry

    The rains have been poor while demand for water grows along with the city – there are solutions but they will mean radical action”

    • Looks pretty rough. That said, it appears that they do have a decent response in hand. It’s really just a matter of how long the rains subside this time. How long the drought, which is ongoing for two years in Africa, lasts.

      The article notes that climate change increases flooding. But the increased temperature also increases rates of evaporation which can tend to lengthen and intensify droughts. It’s worth noting that warming in the Pacific to far above average ranges likely had a larger overall impact on the recent drought in Africa. There’s a bit of a climate signal in that the degree to which this key Pacific region warmed is outside typical norms.

  4. Greg

     /  July 27, 2017

    Hope these companies really do help pay to clean up this mess.
    Four days of heat on Earth in this gif. Gives another perspective on our dynamic Earth.

  5. Greg

     /  July 27, 2017

    Today in the heartland of the United States, the largest single wind energy project and 2nd largest in the world is announced. This is how an energy company should be operating these days. “Public Service Co. of Oklahoma and a sister electric utility will team up on a $4.5 billion project to take renewable energy from the nation’s largest wind farm in the Oklahoma Panhandle to their customers in four states, the utilities announced Wednesday.”

    • It is good news, especially for an oil/gas state

    • So Cat has recently been on a number of trips for the Humane Society to both Oklahoma and Kansas. She’s been really excited to send back pictures of the very large wind farms out there. Another two gigawatts under contract is a fantastic development.

  6. I think it’s worth repeating that, even though these large companies have enabled us to emit all that carbon, it is our behaviour (at least those of us in developed nations and many in developing nations) that has done most of the damage. Admittedly, it’s tough to go against the flow but we always have choices.

    • For generations, the choice for many has been economic exile or use fossil fuels. It’s a kind of captive consumerism. It takes an exceptional person to swim against that tide in the present market. But that is changing thanks to more energy options and different food choices.

    • wili

       /  July 27, 2017

      Original article here:

      Cristian Proistosescu and Peter J. Huybers (5 July 2017), “Slow climate mode reconciles historical and model-based estimates of climate sensitivity”, Sci. Adv. 3, e1602821,
      DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1602821

      (thnx to aslr at asif for this)

    • Hah. Paywall. I’ve reached my monthly limit on WaPo articles. Thanks for the study link, above.

      • wili

         /  July 27, 2017

        Indeed. On another forum, I pointed out to someone making a similar argument that they were basically doing the same as letting ‘drug kingpins’ off the hook because they were after all just responding to consumer demand. The poster actually agreed, and defended the poor drug kingpins.

        It’s time to name these companies for what they are–knowing destroyers of the planet. Pushers of omnicidal ‘drugs.’ Always working hard to make sure that nothing effective gets done to move the planet off their toxic and addicting products. Hell, even Bush talked of our ‘addiction’ to oil.

        Of course, we should all encourage people’s efforts to quit the habit. But it is clear who conspired for decades to get us all hooked, every bit as much as the scummy tobacco companies worked to addict children to their deadly addictive product because they knew that would be the best way to create legions of life-long addicts.

        • wili

           /  July 27, 2017

          Oops, this was supposed to go after robert’s response to Ronald.

  7. Ronald

     /  July 27, 2017

    I usually agree with you, but in this case I find it rather hypocritical to point accusing fingers at those companies, since they are the suppliers, we are all consumers.

    • This is a shrill, hollow, and heartless argument. You are basically engaged in blaming the victim.

      These companies have promoted captive consumerism and climate change denial for generations. The crisis is largely inflicted through economic and political control of energy markets and related public relations and marketing campaigns. If you can’t address those root social and economic causes, then you can’t address climate change.

      In law enforcement, which I served in for three years, if you want to be effective in reducing overall drug abuse, you don’t criminalize/blame/incarcerate drug users who are in many cases victims of both their environment and social situations, you go after the drug dealers and drug suppliers while providing escape hatches for addicts and users. And this is the case with carbon emissions as well.

      Failure to see this basic truth is to defend the status quo that leads to BAU fossil fuel burning. And that is the very height of hypocritical and harmful thinking.

      Of course we should encourage responsible individual action. However to ignore the role of bad actor corporations in this case is to fail to see where the problem came from in the first place. Changing their behavior through whatever action available (legal, political, social), which is harmfully incentivized by profit motive, is key to dealing with the problem of carbon emissions. And because they are the chief economic beneficiary of those emissions, and because many of them have worked so hard in the past to lock in continued emissions, then they bear a major liability and responsibility for the harms that are now being inflicted.

  8. Hallyx

     /  July 27, 2017

    Here we go, again.

    “The EPI (Energy and Policy Institute) report ….reveal(s) that beginning as early as 1968, government scientists repeatedly warned electric utility executives about risks of manmade climate change.

    In 1968, a top science adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson, addressing executives at an annual industry convention, said:
    Many of the problems we now face in managing our environment are a simple consequence of the ever-increasing scale of man’s activities. We threaten to overwhelm nature—not just our streams and the air over our cities, but possibly even on a global scale.”


  9. “These companies have promoted captive consumerism and climate change denial for generations.”

    I, too, can not get on board with pursuing prosecution of petroleum companies for the lawful, legal production of a legal product. A product crucial to the standard of living we all enjoy, and a product which, by itself, contributes very little to greenhouse gas emissions. Until we all put it in our very own engines and furnaces and burn it.

    This is NOT Exxon et al’s crime.

    But I do believe their actual crime is horrendous. And by that I refer to their surreptitious financing of climate change denial propaganda and corruption of the political process. For those crimes, I, in the most strongest terms possible, hope to see them convicted of Crimes against Humanity and imprisoned forever.

    I would like to hear more about your “captive consumerism” charge, Robert, as I do not understand it.

    • If you, based on your present economic and political situation, are unable to afford or access renewable energy, then you, by definition, are a captive consumer to fossil fuels.

      That’s the basic definition. But there’s a lot of government policy and economics in general that goes behind it.

      Given the severe damage caused by fossil fuels, we should all be given access to various escape hatches in the form of alternatives. There are various policy levers that can achieve this access and fossil fuel industries have been working as hard as they can to ensure that those levers are not pulled and that the only convenient choice remains fossil fuels. That is what I mean by captive consumerism — a kind of regulatory and government funding based capture of markets by fossil fuels that we’ve seen for so long.

    • In any case, it is my contention, that though fossil fuel extraction and burning may well be legal, that it is no longer moral in that it represents a direct existential threat to civilization. Any action attempting to extend the time period of fossil fuel burning is therefore an implicit crime in that it commits considerable future harm to life, Earth system life support, and property.

    • Finally, it has often been the contention of fossil fuel companies that human civilization needs energy. This is true. However, there are enough alternatives at present such that it can be accurately said that human civilization does not need fossil fuel energy to function. That the supply of energy can certainly come from other systems. So it’s not a question of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s a question of urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. A need that is being delayed and sand-bagged by fossil fuel based economic and political interests.


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