Who's Responsible for Climate Damages?

Published Jan 24, 2018

Dr. Peter Frumhoff discusses how science is pinpointing companies’ impacts.

In this episode
  • Peter and Colleen explore how the tobacco and fossil fuel industries are deceptively similar
  • Peter explains how disinformation and doubt are common tactics used to avoid regulation
  • Colleen and Peter discuss how, with science, we can quantify a company’s impact on climate change
  • Peter talks about how the public can be empowered to hold companies accountable for damage to the climate
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Full transcript

Bill: Sandy may have been seen as an act of God, but let's be clear, it didn't happen by accident. For decades, big oil ravaged the environment, and big oil copied big tobacco. They used a classic cynical playbook. They denied and denied and denied that their product was lethal. Meanwhile, they spent a lot of time hooking society on that lethal product, and think about how cynical and dangerous that is knowing the damage that was being caused, having all the evidence in the world and yet using all the tools at their disposal to deepen the crisis for their own profit. Were they punished for these destructive actions? No. They were rewarded to the tune of trillions of dollars.

Colleen: That was New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, announcing the city's decision to divest from fossil fuels and filed suit in federal court against five of the largest fossil fuel companies. Welcome to "The Got Science" podcast. I'm your host, Colleen MacDonald. Ever wondered who should pay for the damage caused by climate change? Well, that's what we're talking about today on "The Got Science" podcast. After the interview, our correspondent Shreya Durvasula has another egregious example of the Trump administration sidelining science.

For decades, fossil fuel companies have operated with what we call a social license. We assume they have a right to produce what they produce and to market it and make a profit like any other company. But what happens when the product a company makes is harmful to human health and the environment? What about when a company lies to the public about the harm? Should a company like that keep its social license for business as usual?

When Volkswagen lied about its diesel emissions, the company had to pay billions of dollars in fines to regulatory agencies and consumers. When cigarette manufacturers, Philip Morris, and R. J. Reynolds lied about their products causing lung cancer, they were held accountable in court. And since the '90s, business as usual has looked very different for cigarette companies in the U.S.

We know that for decades, fossil fuel companies have funded efforts to spread doubt about climate change and whether carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are to blame. When will these companies be held accountable for what they know, what they knew decades ago, and how they chose to operate their businesses?

Today on "Got Science," I'm talking with my colleague, Dr. Peter Frumhoff about fossil fuel company accountability. Peter is Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. And he joined me to discuss whether it's possible to attribute specific climate impacts to specific companies and why the tide is turning on business as usual for the fossil fuel industry. Peter, welcome to "The Got Science" podcast.

Peter: It's great to be here, Colleen.

Colleen: So Peter, you've been at the forefront of scientific research to determine who's responsible for climate change. What got you interested in this work?

Peter: Well, Colleen, the question of responsibility is really central to what we do about a problem. We know from the history of tobacco, that public opinion shifted from the notion that individuals who smoke cigarettes were responsible for the risks of lung cancer and emphysema to an understanding that tobacco companies were responsible. And that shift was central to the process of holding tobacco companies accountable for their contributions to the problem. That came about in part, because people began to understand that tobacco companies had deceived the public on those risks that they had sought to disinform public understanding to misrepresent the science of the health risk of tobacco, and that led for people to understand that companies had a responsibility for the risks that their products were causing.

And in a workshop that I co-organized in 2012 in La Jolla that brought historians and tobacco experts and climate scientists together to try to understand what lessons we could draw from the history of tobacco control to apply to the challenges of climate change. We understood in that workshop that much of the same actions of deception were also taking place by fossil fuel companies. That documentation was beginning to become revealed.

And a colleague there, Richard Heede, a geographer, shared with us a body of research that he had not yet published that was really quite extraordinary. He had been in this very painstaking analysis characterizing just how much of the climate problem could be attributed to fossil fuel companies. He was showing data not yet published that about two-thirds of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions that were released to the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels could be traced back to just 90 companies, including many of the fossil fuel companies, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, who had been engaged in these deceptive practices.

And one of the outcomes of this workshop was that it might be very helpful in addition to raising public awareness about the deception of fossil fuel companies around the risks of climate change, to also take this data and translate it into real impacts, to be able to demonstrate just how much of the rise in sea level and the rise in temperatures could be attributed to fossil fuel companies. That science of climate responsibility was really started at that point.

Colleen: Without getting too technical, how did you attribute impacts of climate change to specific companies? It seems harder than tobacco, cigarettes, and lung cancer. How did you go about doing that?

Peter: So let me start with what Rick Heede had done because we'd built upon that database. He went through dusty library archives and various sources of information that had not yet been collated and characterized on an annual basis, dating back to the dawn of the industrial revolution, for every year, just how much coal, oil, and natural gas had been extracted from the ground by major fossil fuel companies. Translated that into units of carbon dioxide and methane that got released when their products were combusted through human activity, through driving cars and airplanes and turning on electricity, and we simply incorporated that data into a global climate model.

You know, when carbon dioxide or methane gets released to the atmosphere, it's one major driver of climate change, but you have to take account of all manner of other things, volcanoes erupting, deforestation from converting of forest to agricultural land and the carbon emissions that come from that. There are lots of drivers of climate change. So a carbon cycle model enabled us to characterize just how much of the contribution of these major companies could be translated into the actual warming that we observed. And that's the fundamental technical basis for understanding just how much warming would we have seen with those emissions versus how much we have seen without them.

Colleen: So you can actually say ExxonMobil is responsible for X amount?

Peter: Well, what we can say is that these 90 companies, which includes Exxon and Chevron and other major fossil fuel companies, together their cumulative emissions traced to their products are responsible for about half of the rise in global temperature that we've seen since the late 19th century. Their emissions are responsible for about a third of the rise in global sea level. And yes, we can show just how much we can trace to individual companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

Colleen: So when fossil fuel companies were extracting oil 30, 40 years ago, did they know this stuff was harmful?

Peter: Clearly when they were doing it in the late 19th century, they didn't know, but by the late 1970s, early 1980s, the evidence is clear that they knew very well. This is 40 years ago. Scientists within these companies were briefing senior executives on the serious climate risks of continued combustion of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This was in line at the same time as the National Academy was doing its first studies on carbon dioxide and climate change. Scientists within these companies were collaborating with leading scientists at the time and they knew full well that their products were risky well before the public really understood.

Colleen: And what did they do?

Peter: Well, they didn't do much during that early time period. They simply kept producing their products. They didn't report on the risks of their products. It was based in internal company documents. They weren't discussing it publicly. But once the evidence of climate change became clear in a public context, this was in the late 1980s when NASA scientist, Jim Hansen first testified before Congress, when this became a real public issue, when the first president Bush talked about fighting the greenhouse effect with the white house effect. Well, before this became polarized in the public debate. When that happened, what did companies do?

They began a massive disinformation campaign to sow doubt about the risks of their products just as tobacco companies had done a decade or two earlier, drawing on exactly the same playbook. They trotted out misinformation and they sought to sow doubt in order to avoid regulation. And they did so with millions of dollars by creating a number of different front groups and quite successfully they helped the George W. Bush administration avoid supporting the Kyoto protocol. They were intentional as internal documents of their communication strategies and of their funding have revealed, they were intentional in trying to ensure that the public didn't understand the serious climate risks of their products in order to avoid regulation.

Colleen: One fascinating thing that is happening now is that a number of cities and counties have filed lawsuits against big oil companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and others. And at least a couple of states are investigating whether they misled shareholders and the public on the risks of climate change. Is this unprecedented?

Peter: There are now really over the past year or so a series of, as you say, lawsuits in the U.S., some internationally as well, to seek to hold companies accountable for the damages of climate change and for the cost of adapting to future climate change, that's now locked in. So in California, San Francisco, Oakland, several counties have filed these lawsuits and they're focused on getting funding for the damage costs that sea level rise affecting coastal communities is imposing. And I think we're at the front end of a really major lever to drive responsible action on the part of fossil fuel companies. After all, why should taxpayers alone pay the costs of the damages of climate change when companies knowingly sought to sow doubt about the risks of their products when they could have taken other actions? And that's what's really central, they could have done something different, but they chose not to.

Colleen: So where does the Trump administration fit into this picture?

Peter: Well, the Trump administration is AWOL on climate policy and on climate science. They've been taking information down from federal websites around climate change and restricting scientists from speaking out in federal agencies on the serious risks of climate change. And they've pulled back from the implementation of the Paris Agreement and from the Clean Power Plan, all actions which have really led to a we're still in campaign of resistance from states, from businesses, from local communities to find ways in spite of the lack of action by this administration and by this Congress to take the reins of climate action and make sure that we're still moving forward.

I see these lawsuits as part of the we're still in campaign. There are efforts by local communities, by cities, potentially by states to hold companies accountable, to seek to thwart their efforts to support the Trump administration and Congress's avoidance of taking climate change seriously, and to use their authority to seek to reduce the damages from climate change that these products have been causing. I think it's a very important moment.

You know, where this takes us is a little unclear, but I can tell you one thing, in the history of tobacco, which I alluded to earlier, some of the original or the first lawsuits were unsuccessful in the sense that juries and judges ruled against the folks who were seeking to hold companies, tobacco companies accountable. But they were successful in another sense, that is the process of legal discovery led to the revealing of documents that were in tobacco companies' vaults that reinforce the legitimate public understanding that companies were lying about the risks of their products.

It may well be the case. You know, my crystal ball is pretty cloudy, but it may well be in the case in 2018, perhaps 2019, these court cases can take a while that we'll have similar revelations coming out of lawsuits that are driving the release of documents, so that we'll really understand the full story of what fossil fuel companies have been doing, and that itself will be a central moment in driving climate action.

Colleen: We'll be back in a moment with the second half of our interview. "The Got Science" podcast is brought to you by the Union of Concerned Scientists. More at gotsciencepodcast.org. You can also find information on climate deception and accountability at ucsusa.org/climateaccountability. Stick around after the interview and we'll talk about who isn't giving scientific advice to the Trump administration. Now back to our interview.

So I keep thinking of Houston and Hurricane Harvey and the recent reports that climate change made Harvey's torrential rains worse. How can people in disaster struck areas use this type of analysis?

Peter: Well, what we're seeing increasingly, in the wake of a damaging extreme storm like Harvey, like Irma, scientists are increasingly able to attribute the contribution of climate change to the severity of the damages. So really just a couple of months after Harvey's devastating impact on Houston and South Texas, we now have research which shows that a significant fraction of the intense rainfall that caused so much of the flooding damage would not have happened, but for the contribution of climate change, of the emissions of burning of fossil fuels, that ability to attribute damages to particular events is growing in the scientific community, the science of climate attribution. And that's a key factor that can, I hope, enable cities like Houston, states like Texas, places that are being affected to be able to do what California is doing in these jurisdictions, and ask, why should taxpayers, why should affected communities alone be responsible for paying the cost? Right now, that's the default.

But as we understand with greater precision, not only how much of climate change in general is being driven by emissions from products of individual companies, but how much specific damage in particular locations, human lives and livelihoods, homes, businesses are being damaged to the tune of billions of dollars by climate change that would not have happened, but for emissions of carbon dioxide and methane and other heat trapping gases. Society in general, and specifically in these most affected communities, I think have an opportunity to seek to hold those companies accountable, not in a retribution kind of sense, but in an opportunity to say, look, you guys have real responsibility here, these costs are enormous and they're gonna to be growing. Why should we be the sole holders of that burden?

Colleen: So aside from lawsuits, what else can be done?

Peter: Well, I think we're beginning to see the rise of a whole variety of approaches to hold companies accountable, to put really their social license to operate as they've been operating for decades into question. So in addition to the lawsuits that we're now seeing, we're also seeing much more assertive actions and successful actions, for example, by shareholders. Just this past year, shareholders in ExxonMobil's annual meeting successfully passed a resolution over the objections of the company. This never happens. To call on ExxonMobil to report on the climate risks associated with...of its business, with the implementation of the Paris Agreement. How would that change their profitability recognizing that we need to bring global emissions essentially down to zero in the decades ahead? Exxon wanted no part of it, but shareholders, including major, very kind of conservative investors stepped up and said, "No, it's time to act."

And Exxon is now agreeing to do this. We're beginning to see a whole variety of mechanisms, even in the absence of the Trump administration, for states, for attorneys general, to be holding companies accountable in New York and in Massachusetts. Attorneys general are seeking to hold companies, particularly Exxon, accountable for fraud, shareholder fraud associated with misinformation that they've done on climate change.

These are just some of the tools. And as this becomes a public conversation, I think just like with tobacco, as the public understood then that companies were sowing doubt about their products seeking to continue to use products they knew to be harmful, avoiding other actions they could have taken to invest in clean energy, for example, to support sensible climate policies, that the public opinion will have a significant impact on limiting the ability of companies to continue business as usual. And we'll really need significant social action of the sort that the Union of Concerned Scientists is supporting through our climate accountability campaign, to hold companies publicly, as well as legally and politically accountable for the climate change that their products have caused.

Colleen: But this analysis, nobody's done this, right? I mean, Rick Heede started this, and have other people been working on it? It just feels like breakthrough analysis.

Peter: Yeah. So in the fall of 2017, I and colleagues from Union of Concerned Scientists and a couple of universities, University of Oxford and elsewhere, published for the first time science that traced changes in climate to the emissions from the products of the individual fossil energy companies. No one had done that before. And it's really at the front end of what I hope we'll see as an emergence of what I call the science of climate responsibility, the ability to specifically attribute not just changes in global climate, but real changes such as sea level rise and coastal flooding in particular places where we're seeing real damages in real time to the contributions of individual fossil energy companies.

The fact is that we can now put a number on the damage that companies have caused while knowing that their products were harmful and while investing in efforts to sow doubt about their risks to their products, when they could have taken other action. This science I think is actionable. It creates an opportunity for not just policymakers and attorneys, not just the court of law, but in the court of public opinion for people to begin to stand up and say, "No, companies have to stop disinformation. They need to start acting responsibly," whether its investors or state attorneys general or the public at large.

We're seeing the front end I think of a major new movement that this science can inform to thwart the ability of fossil fuel companies, some of the most powerful companies on earth with a strong vested interest in continuing business as usual emissions, even as many of them now claim that they support, for example, the Paris Agreement, at the same time as they continue to invest in new sources of coal, oil, and natural gas. That this new science and the public recognition of their disinformation can create an opportunity to really move and reduce their political power just as good science and good public advocacy did with the tobacco industry.

This is a new opportunity for us. And my hope is that through the work of the Union of Concerned Scientists, our climate accountability campaign and the emergence of the recognition that it's legitimate to hold companies accountable just as we hold governments accountable for their contributions to climate change, and that we can put a number on it in a very powerful and specific way. That this is an opportunity to really bring about change even in the absence of political will in this administration and Congress.

Colleen: So what are some of the next steps for UCS?

Peter: So, you know, we're producing the science, we're connecting that science to actions that are taking place in the legal community and the investor community, and we're also bringing it to the public. So for example, we're hosting a big forum in Los Angeles at UCLA Law School to put up the question, what's the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for climate damages?

We're doing this in a big public forum in a city, within a state that's at the epicenter of both climate impacts and at the epicenter of climate action, including through legal action by seven cities and counties to hold companies accountable. We really wanna put this in a broader public light to wrestle with the question of responsibility, to look at the legal opportunities and options, but really ask it as a societal question. You know, the notion of responsibility is not determined by science, it's determined by society.

And so this is an example of a public forum, one of many that we are doing to enable opportunities for people to think differently about this and to recognize that we're all responsible, but some of us are more responsible than others. And a public forum in California will be followed by others in Massachusetts and other parts of the country as we bring this information to broader light.

Colleen: Well, thanks Peter. At this moment, when we're feeling dismayed by the Trump administration bagging out on climate change.

Peter: Among many other things.

Colleen: Yes. It's great to hear some exciting new science that is going to help us make change.

Peter: Thank you, Colleen.

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