Big Carbon & Big Tobacco, Same Path to Court

At some point, corporations will be held accountable for their crimes against nature and society by fueling climate change and misinforming the public on this emergency.

A letter to 75 corporate executives of major fossil fuel, insurance and other carbon-intensive companies makes it clear that day is drawing nearer – it says executives could face personal liability for funding climate denial and obstructing policies necessary to fight climate change. 

The Center for International Environmental Law, Greenpeace International and World Wildlife Fund sent the letter to fossil fuel, mining, insurance and carbon-intensive manufacturers like cement-maker Holcim (here’s the list).

"From asbestos to tobacco to oil spills, history shows that those who mislead the public, the market or the government about the risks of their products, or the availability of safer alternatives, can face substantial legal liability, both as companies and as individuals. As the impacts of climate denialism and regulatory obstruction become clear, we want to understand how corporations, insurers, and officers and directors are allocating those risks among themselves. Just as importantly, we ask what steps they’re taking to prevent the misconduct that creates those risks in the first place," says Carroll Muffett, President of the Center for International Environmental Law.

"Sooner or later, those who hide the facts and oppose policies to fight climate change will be held to account by the courts. By signing this letter, we hope to bring attention to the importance of truthful, transparent and responsible corporate reporting and policy engagement on climate change," says Samantha Smith, who leads WWF’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative.

50 corporations produce 75% of the greenhouse gases of the 500 largest publicly traded companies. These are the major polluters in the US. 

Climate Change Discussion

Indeed, leading environmental attorneys from around the world are building the case to go after polluters in court to force them (or their government regulators) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Big Carbon is where Big Tobacco was, before it started losing," says an article in The Nation. The tobacco industry kept spinning doubt long after the science was clear on the health issues caused by its products. "As the tobacco suits lurched forward, documents – as well as some infamous congressional testimony – proved the industry’s bad faith, swaying public opinion against tobacco. It was that, along with the massive wave of lawsuits by all 50 state attorneys general, that helped persuade Congress to bring the cigarette makers under the federal regulatory umbrella," explains The Nation.

"While the industry scoffs at the importance of climate-change lawsuits, Big Carbon is thought to be taking them very seriously in private – especially after a federal appeals court found in 2005 that US cities and even individuals suffering economic and other damages from climate change have standing to sue under the National Environmental Policy Act," climate attorney Matthew Pawa, told The Nation.

"We want to influence the court of public opinion. We have to educate people about the truth after all this industry disinformation. So let the lawsuits produce documents and testimony and all sorts of information for the public. That’s one of their functions. That’s where the tobacco wars were won. Even [Representative Henry] Waxman’s famous tobacco hearings in Congress – the tobacco execs never admitted anything. You didn’t need to get to that. By the time they left the hearing room, they were already pariahs. We’d seen through them," says attorney Kert Davies.

Here is the letter:

Dear ____

We are writing to you as we are contacting individual members of the Board of Directors and/or Officers of ___ corporation, which ranks among the largest historic contributors to industrial greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, we have contacted Senior Executives of major writers of Directors and Officers (D&O) liability cover. You can view the list of recipients on the Greenpeace International website.

The corporations who share the majority of responsibility for the estimated global industrial emissions of CO2 and methane over the past 150 years may have been or may be working to defeat action on climate change and clean energy by funding climate denial and disseminating false or misleading information on climate risks (see Annex A). These actions are being taken despite increased awareness of the threats associated with climate change among shareholders, the insurance industry, and many others, and the overwhelming body of climate science on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

While lawful lobbying is a vital part of the democratic process, corporate influence – either directly or through outside organizations – aiming to obstruct action on climate change, coupled with the development, sponsorship or dissemination of false, misleading or intentionally incomplete information about the climate risks associated with fossil fuel products and services to regulators, shareholders, and insurers could pose a risk to directors and officers personally. In particular, the threat of future civil or criminal litigation could have major implications for D&O liability insurance coverage (see Annex B).

We ask that you respond within four weeks to the "Questions for fossil fuel company directors and officers". The substance of this letter, along with a list of companies to which we have sent letters is posted on the Greenpeace International website, and your response will also be posted soon after its receipt.

We look forward to receiving your responses. 

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Read the article in the Nation, Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court:

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