23 april 2018

The Case for Climate Reparations

Who should pay the costs for climate-change-related disasters?

by Jason Mark, Sierra, April 23, 2018

[The first three quarters of this article details the death and destruction caused in several American families in the Western U.S. by climate change-related wild fires and floods. The article then raises the question of liability and reparations in the following paragraphs. ]

WHEN ASKED who, if anyone, should be held responsible for the suffering they have experienced, neither Brad nor Brandy Sherwood, nor Yesenia Ramos Cintrón, nor any of the Saldivar brothers offered the fossil fuel corporations as an answer. These were natural disasters, they said. They were acts of God, some of them believe.

Yet someone should be held accountable for these families' loss and suffering. These extreme weather disasters are, at this point, as much unnatural as they are natural. Human forces are at work, the same forces that are now busy trying to avoid any responsibility for what they've wrought.

The Carbon Barons seek to perpetuate the myth that because we are each, in some tiny way, responsible for fueling climate change, no one should be held liable for any damage and destruction. In response to the raft of lawsuits, the CEO of BP, Bob Dudley, swatted away the Big Tobacco analogies. "People don't need to smoke cigarettes, but they have needed energy for many decades," he said. "If you're asking me, can the legal system do something like that, I don't know. But do I think it's right? Absolutely not." The day after the New York City lawsuit was filed, the New York Post's editorial page harrumphed, "Why should the oil companies pay? They're not actually burning the fuel—that's the world's utilities, motorists, etc."

The blithe dismissals from the Carbon Barons and their apologists are little more than sarcasm used to disguise fear. At some level, they know a reckoning is coming. And so they seek to dilute responsibility with every gallon of fuel they sell. Their claim of blamelessness is the hollow innocence of the drug dealer: The customers just wanted it.

This is not to say that the Carbon Barons alone should bear the costs of climate-change-related disasters and adaptation. There is no question that each of us, as individuals, carries some blame. A fair reading of history would conclude that the public at large has known about the dangers of our daily energy consumption at least since 1994, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change went into effect. Commonsense morality demands that we do what we can to reduce our individual emissions: take the train instead of the plane, go by bike rather than by car, forgo the steak in favor of the vegetarian option, have fewer children. If that sounds like sacrifice, it is. Such sacrifices could also be viewed as virtues—the old-fashioned values of temperance, frugality, and patience.

We cannot, however, reasonably expect moral behavior from the Carbon Barons, whose controlling ethic is meeting shareholder expectations. But at the very least we must demand that they be held accountable. For they, unlike us, are uniquely culpable.

The Carbon Barons are guilty not only of fraud but also of reckless negligence, of failing to use their early knowledge about climate change risks to shift the direction of human affairs. You can decide not to indulge in luxury emissions like a trip to Europe, but such abstinence will do almost nothing to reduce global warming. The Carbon Barons are in a different position. When they learned that their products could be catastrophic, they had the ability to intervene in the course of history. They possessed the scientific awareness, the economic might, and the political influence to have avoided climate chaos.

And they chose not to.

THE LAW IS AN IMPERFECT extension of ethics. Tort law alone isn't going to save the planet. Even if, after years of litigation, the pending cases succeed, the question of climate restitution may well be too large for the courtroom, the damages too vast for any single judge or jury to decide. This century will witness trillions of dollars of infrastructure and wealth destroyed in the course of unnatural disasters. Millions of human lives may be lost in heat waves, droughts, fires, and floods. Beyond the losses for human civilization, there are the damages to wild nature—the altered forests and the acidic seas. Is any settlement large enough to remedy the extinction of a species? One stumbles in trying to make such a reckoning.

Yet a reckoning must be made. While the courts are, for now, the best and most likely venue for achieving some amends, climate justice is ultimately a political problem. After all, we are not merely consumers seeking compensation for a product defect. We are citizens insisting that impunity is unacceptable in a republic governed by the rule of law. The demand for climate change reparations—that is to say, some redress for climate change's recent past, present, and likely future damages—is the base minimum required for any accounting of a crime as insidious as the profit-driven alteration of Earth's atmosphere.

The urgency of this attempt cannot be overstated. This effort to apportion responsibility is in a race against time and the implacable physics of Earth's vast systems. The longer the Carbon Barons are able to delay justice, the sooner a worse judgment will come for all of us, the innocent as well as the guilty.

This article appeared in the May/June 2018 edition of Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Clujb with the headline "The Case for Climate Reparations."

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