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.