By Ruchika Agarwal:
In 2015 it was discovered that ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, knew of climate change years before it became a public issue. More recently the Center for International Environmental Law also (CIEL) uncovered a trove of documents that prove that America’s oil and natural gas industry was well aware of the consequences of burning fossil fuels from as early as 1957. They knew about it but chose not to act on it.
Once the fatal impacts of fossil fuel use became public knowledge a few years later, ExxonMobil and other energy giants worked to undermine public confidence in climate science to preserve their financial interests. The company spent more than $16 million to get research that denied climate change.
In 1988, a few countries got together to create the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to provide a scientific basis to back climate policy. In response, leading fossil fuel corporations, including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP created the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). From 1989 to 2001, the GCC defended the interests of the fossil fuel industry by aggressively working towards undermining the integrity of the IPCC and creating doubt about scientific evidence that proved climate change.
The tobacco industry was found guilty of a similar crimes in which it conspired to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking. Even though the industry knew about the relationship between tobacco consumption and lung cancer and other diseases, they strategised to confuse and deny the science.
In 2006, the Department of Justice found them guilty, and the industry was fined $10 billion. Post that judgement; stringent regulations have been put in place, and they have been able to prevent them (tobacco companies) from affecting negotiations done for public health.
The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) created Article 19 to provide a framework to allow parties to hold the tobacco industry financially and legally accountable for its abuses, putting the societal costs of smoking tobacco on the industry.
The tobacco industry directly affected a smaller demographic – smokers, as compared to the fossil fuel industry – the world.
According to the 2012 Climate Vulnerability Monitor, in 2010 alone 4.5 million deaths could be attributed to the production of carbon particles and nitrogen oxides – a direct result of fossil fuel consumption. Another 500,000 could be attributed to climate change-related extreme weather events and infectious disease epidemics – also a consequence of fossil fuel consumption.
Very little is being done to hold the fossil fuel industry liable.
In 2015, the New York Attorney General opened an investigation on ExxonMobil to determine if the company fabricated evidence to mislead the public about the risks of climate change, or lie to investors about how the risks could hurt the oil business.
In July, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines gave 47 major energy giants; including Shell, BP and Chevron 45 days to respond to the accusation that the emissions caused by their activities have violated the human rights of millions of Filipino residents. In this unprecedented yet monumental move, a national body has declared climate change as a human rights issue.
These are only the first steps in a long journey of holding the fossil fuel industry responsible for their crimes. To get the fossil fuel giants to take responsibility, both legally and financially, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) could adapt the mechanisms FCTC applied to hold the tobacco industry accountable.
Image source: Kim Seng/Flickr