A new study in Climatic Change linking most of the fossil fuels extracted in the last 150 years to 90 producers has garnered a bit of interest in the climate change world. One of the issues raised in the study is responsibility, and the coverage in the media has led to debates about pointing fingers and just who is really responsible for climate change.
Here’s a sample from Tim Worstall’s blog, who calls the article “complete and total bollocks”:
The fault is not in the companies but in us the consumers. Not one single one of the fuckers would have dug up or pumped a single kilo of carbon if we hadn’t wanted to use it.
We have been warm, well fed and mobile for a century because of fossil fuels. We wanted it, we enjoyed it and if there is any blame to be passed around then it is to us, the people who enjoyed the products of which the emissions are a by product.
His article in Forbes is as follows:
Do I have to mention a similar cause-effect guilt-culpability claim by an infamous organization?
And there’s more where that came from:
According to William M. Connolley,
Its an attempt to shift the blame off us lot so we can all relax and spew out yet more CO2 and say “oh no, its not our fault, look, the Graun says its all the fault of those nasty fossil fuel companies over there”.
Not to miss an opportunity, The Onion has this article out in response: New Report Finds Climate Change Caused By 7 Billion Key Individuals:
From the article:
“Our research has proved conclusively that, year after year, the acceleration of the rate of global warming and the damage caused by this man-made acceleration can be clearly linked to 7 billion main culprits,” explained lead author Dr. John Bartlett, noting that many of these individuals have links to climate change going back nearly a century. “Worse, the significant majority of damage was done within the past two decades, when the consequences of climate change were widely known and yet these specific individuals did nothing to curb or amend their practices.”
“Now that we’ve done the hard work of identifying the key players responsible for this crisis, we can move forward with holding them accountable,” Bartlett added. “And it is my opinion that we need to regulate these individuals swiftly and decisively before they do any more damage.”
Yeah, it’s a good yuk and I do love the Onion, and I do hate to appear to lack a sense of humour, but satire runs the risk of minimizing the real issues while poking fun. In this case, it runs the risk of doing a serious disservice to those among the 7 billion who have not contributed to global warming in any appreciable amount but who are suffering as a consequence of those who have.
Are all humans equally culpable for the CO2 and land use changes that are causing global warming?
Of course not.
A small proportion of those alive today and in the past is largely responsible for the majority of the emissions. Do we, the individuals, really have a choice about those emissions? After all, if consumers didn’t want to buy gasoline to fuel their cars and heat their houses and air condition their condos and make their plastic products, they could choose to buy some other form of energy, right? Oh, wait…
So it looks as if this report has received quite the mixed response.
While reading the point-counterpoint is amusing and mentally invigorating, after you clear away all the hot air, this is an important question. Who is responsible for global warming? What do we mean by responsibility? Why do we want to assign responsibility and culpability? What good will it do to name names? Point fingers?
Here’s the abstract of the Heede paper:
Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854 – 2010Abstract
This paper presents a quantitative analysis of the historic fossil fuel and cement production records of the 50 leading investor-owned, 31 state-owned, and 9 nation-state producers of oil, natural gas, coal, and cement from as early as 1854 to 2010. This analysis traces emissions totaling 914 GtCO2e—63 % of cumulative worldwide emissions of industrial CO2 and methane between 1751 and 2010—to the 90 “carbon major” entities based on the carbon content of marketed hydrocarbon fuels (subtracting for non-energy uses), process CO2 from cement manufacture, CO2 from flaring, venting, and own fuel use, and fugitive or vented methane. Cumulatively, emissions of 315 GtCO2e have been traced to investor-owned entities, 288 GtCO2e to state-owned enterprises, and 312 GtCO2e to nation-states. Of these emissions, half has been emitted since 1986. The carbon major entities possess fossil fuel reserves that will, if produced and emitted, intensify anthropogenic climate change. The purpose of the analysis is to understand the historic emissions as a factual matter, and to invite consideration of their possible relevance to public policy.
It bears repeating the purpose of the analysis for the author — “to understand the historic emissions as a factual matter, and to invite consideration of their possible relevance to public policy”.
Of interest to this writer is the following:
The analysis highlights the fact that major producers of fossil fuels are not all located in Annex I nations: Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, India, Venezuela, Mexico, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and Algeria appear on the list of top twenty producers (Table 3). Of the 85 extant entities, 54 are headquartered in Annex I countries, and 31 in non-Annex I nations. Considerable benefits have accrued to these carbon majors, and to their state-sponsors and investors. Given this, it seems reasonable to argue that they have an ethical obligation to help address climate destabilization (Gardiner et al. 2010; Gardiner 2011). Moreover, many of these entities—both state- and investor-owned—possess the financial resources and technical capabilities to develop and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.
So the point is to identify responsibility for those corporations and entities who did the extraction of fossil fuels.These entities have made a lot of money off the extraction and sale of greenhouse gas producing materials and are largely able to assist in mitigation and adaptation. The paper identifies a potential risk for public policy makers to address in any policy they make regarding global warming.
Without minimizing the responsibility of Annex I nations, nor of China and India, often discussed, this analysis highlights the role of some non-Annex I nations, such Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico, Iran, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Libya, Nigeria, Indonesia, Brazil, and other countries that have not been at the center of discussions regarding responsibility for controlling emissions. Some of these nations are, in their role as carbon producers, as important contributors to climate change as the Annex I nations who until now have been the focus of attention.
Most analyses to date, as well as the UNFCCC structure, consider responsibility for climate change in terms of nation-states. Such analyses fit the framework of international law, insofar as treaties and conventions are based on agreements between nation-states. However, responsibility can be understood in other ways as well, as done in the present analysis tracing emissions to major carbon producers. Shifting the perspective from nation-states to corporate entities—both investor-owned and state-owned companies—opens new opportunities for those entities to become part of the solution rather than passive (and profitable) bystanders to continued climate disruption.”
The identification of agents and corporate entities rather than nation states is a strategic one. Since they bear a share of the responsibility, and since they control the reserves of fossil fuels, identifying them prevents them from disappearing from the discourse on paying the cost of mitigation and adaptation.
Ultimately, all of us alive today and our descendents will pay for the carbon released into the environment, regardless of our responsibility for those emissions. The impoverished third-world farmer whose crops and herds struggle to survive due to either excess heat or heavy rains as well as the first-world fat cat living in luxury and driving a Hummer four blocks for a latte.
But who should pay? Who is responsible?
The Love Canal public health disaster of the 70s is a small example that can be used to illustrate a few points about responsibility and culpability. In that example, Hooker Chemical had a permit to dump toxic wastes into the canal on property it leased. It even had a limited liability clause in the lease to protect itself from litigation in the event of damages due to contamination. When the site closed in the 50s, it was covered over and soon grass grew there was no indication that a toxic waste dump existed below. Over the years, schools were built in the land purchased from Hooker, and communities arose in the area. For two decades, people lived around the Love Canal, grew vegetables in gardens in their backyards, the children splashed in puddles after rainstorms and played on the site, close to sources of carcinogens like benzenes and dioxins.
In the 1970s, investigative reporters wrote about the existence of the dump and linked it to health concerns, such as increased miscarriages, birth defects and other problems.
So who bears responsibility for the Love Canal? Was it Hooker Chemical, who, after all, did the dumping? They profited for years by having the easy access to a dumping ground. What about the municipal government who permitted this dumping? How about the school board, which bought the land fully aware of the existence of the dump and built schools adjacent to the dump regardless? Was it the builders and homeowner groups who built their homes there? What about the municipal government whose approval of building permits and projects resulted in undermining the containment of the toxic chemicals? What about the consumers who bought products produced using Hooker Chemicals? The pregnant mother who lost her pregnancy? What about the children who developed health problems as a result of playing around carcinogens?
Few, if any of the people harmed by the disaster, either through impacts on their health or loss of their homes, were responsible for dumping the toxic chemicals or damage to the containment structures. Maybe some of them used goods made with Hooker Chemical’s products, but they did not dump the toxic wastes in inappropriate containment. Nor did they knowingly build on land that they knew was a toxic disaster waiting to happen. Yet, they lost the most — their health, some of them their lives, and many of them their homes.
Who did know?
Hooker Chemical knew and took measures to limit its liability when it sold the land to the school board. The school board knew, but forged ahead anyway, in need of land for schools to serve a growing population. The builders and architects knew and warned the school board. The municipal governments knew but apparently, disregarded the risks or misunderstood them. People who built on adjacent land had no knowledge of the dump’s existence or the fact containment had been breached over the years due to building in the region.
There was inadequate protection in place in the original dump site. There was inadequate monitoring of the site after it was closed. There was negligent behavior on the part of major players, the school board, the municipal government, etc.
When we look at the issue of environmental pollution, it would be easy to say that we all bear responsibility for pollution — after all, we all use products that come from toxic chemicals. There are probably very few people in industrial societies who use no plastic products or products made with some kind of toxic chemicals. But, as the Love Canal example illustrates, there are different degrees of responsibility and culpability.
The government of the day paid $101M to clean up the site. It took close to two decades to get that back from the company responsible, using new legislation that makes the polluter pay.
Yes, there was a time when our societies were blissfully unaware of the dangers posed by exposure to toxic chemicals. I highly doubt that chemists working for the chemical companies like Hooker Chemicals were unaware. The company took some pains to protect itself and limit its liability for any contamination resulting from its toxic dump, so it must have known the potential dangers. Municipal politicians should have known and should have done more to ensure that the chemicals were safely stored, both short term and long. The School Board should have been more conservative when deciding on building sites because it did know about the dump. Builders should have warned homeowners about the existence of the dump.
Should have, could have, would have. None of those make the people who were harmed less injured.
To simply point to “consumers” of manufactured products that use toxic chemicals in the production process as having some collective guilt or responsibility is too facile. It ignores the complex web of responsibility and the unequal distribution of power and agency in our societies.
The same applies to climate change.
There was a time when we were blissfully unaware about the effects of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels on our climate. At worst, the toxic fog from burning coal was seen as a health issue. Leaded gasoline was seen as a threat to our health. Our economies grew rapidly, fueled by the availability of cheap fossil fuels, including coal, petroleum products, natural gas, etc. We use countless products made from petroleum products, and the availability of cars and planes, trains and trucks has revolutionized our way of life. Our civilization as a whole has benefited from our fossil fuel use.
So, yes, the modern lifestyle of those of us in the developed world has led directly to global warming. This is beginning to show negative consequences for the world’s inhabitants and the science suggests there is much worse in the pipes, if we forge on BAU. It is perhaps the greatest threat to our civilization yet encountered. Something must be done about it. It will cost a great deal to address the problem.
But not all of the world’s inhabitants have contributed equally to the problem. Not everyone has participated equally in this industrial world premised on a carbon-based energy bonanza. And half of the emissions were produced in the last twenty years — in other words, since we knew about the link between carbon emissions and global warming.
When we look at per capita emissions, we can clearly see that some countries have a greater responsibility for putting those emissions into the atmosphere. This image shows emissions in 2007:
When we look at emissions, we can see that while China may be first in emissions based on sheer quantity in 2007, historically, the picture is different. The Gulf States, US and EU bear the brunt of responsibility for those emissions both in absolute number and per capita production:
Small Island States have very little responsibility for CO2 emissions historically or today, but as we know, they are being affected. The African Union bears little responsibility for total emissions or per capita emissions but they are expected to be highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the next century, according to the IPCC.
Here’s another graphic that shows carbon emissions in tonnes per capita (2002) by nation state:
Quite telling. Not all nations are equally responsible. The share of emissions increases with increasing income, GNP per capita, PPP. So merely claiming “it’s us, stupid” is misleading. It’s not “us”. It’s a particular portion of “us”. And us definitely includes fossil fuel companies.
Face it — our entire civilization is premised on fossil fuels. Industrial society only developed to be the consumerist car-driving travelling sprawling suburb dwelling bountiful picture of modernity largely because of cheap abundant easily accessible fossil fuels and the infrastructure that was put in place to extract it, process it, transport it and distribute it to consumers. Ford knew that if he wanted to really sell a lot of cars, he had to make them affordable for the average worker, hence the average worker had to earn enough money to buy his cars.
Claiming that global warming is due to consumers of products rather than the producers of those products — that fossil fuel companies wouldn’t dig without demand — is only partially true. We know that fossil fuel producers have over the years manipulated demand through a number of means, including price and advertising, through lobbying and other means. They have a product that is very profitable and they want to make sure they can keep selling it and that we keep using it.
Now, as a result of the new report, we have even more detail about precisely which corporate and state entities were involved in extracting the fossil fuels that have contributed the most to climate change.
The graphic shows the 90 entities that extracted most of the fossil fuel responsible for the emissions leading to climate change.
Easy targets? Or responsible agents, who, in large part, must shoulder the cost of mitigation and adaptation?
Who do we blame for climate change? If we blame everyone, equally, is that honest? Is that accurate? More importantly, can blaming “us all” really help solve the problem?
I don’t think it is accurate or honest. It certainly doesn’t lead to any justice for those who will suffer in the future because of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels that was done before they were born.
The science makes it clear that fossil fuels were largely the cause of global warming in the past fifty years. Politicians who have failed to act because of their own vested interests, and due to their reliance on $$ from big oil bear a lot of responsibility for any damage resulting from climate change. Those who have denied the science, who have a vested interest in continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels, and who are preventing action to mitigate climate change are even more culpable for any damage resulting from the continued unmitigated burning of fossil fuels because they give politicians ample reason to dither and delay.
Ultimately, those bear the most responsibility for producing greenhouse gasses are not necessarily the ones who are currently feeling these effects. We’re also more able to pay to mitigate and adapt. Those of us with the greatest responsibility should also be the ones who are most responsible for paying to mitigate and adapt.
Knowing who is responsible for extraction and selling of fossil fuels is an important fact, and part of the information we need to assess and address climate change. Unless we know who, and how much, we can’t begin to address climate change in a just manner.