Climate Reparations, for America?

12 American cities and counties are suing fossil fuel companies for climate reparations, but they are also some of the biggest contributors to the problem. To avoid hypocrisy and injustice, those suing should also recognize and pay their climate debt to those most vulnerable to climate change.

[This is a longer version of an article which appeared in Climate Home News]

Oil and gas companies are finally having their day in court for their campaigns of misinformation and delay on climate change. New York City, San Francisco, and most recently King County in Washington State, are among twelve U.S. cities and counties seeking to undertake lawsuits against fossil fuel companies to hold them liable and make them pay for climate damages. The cities and counties suing these companies are among the richest and biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. So, are they owed climate reparations, or do they themselves owe climate reparations? The answer is both.

In February, San Francisco was the first to kick off one of those cases, when Judge William Alsup of the Federal District Courthouse held a “tutorial” where both sides could present background facts on the matter at hand. At Alsup’s tutorial, Chevron’s lawyer, Ted Boustrous, took centre stage as the only oil company representative willing to speak. He got straight to work at trying to deflect responsibility for climate change away from fossil fuel companies. One of Boustrous’ major gambits was to lay blame for climate change not with the fossil fuel industry but with us.

Boustrous twice showed a slide with a quote from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stating that “anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are mainly driven by population size, economic activity, lifestyle, energy use, land patterns, technology, and climate policy.” Boustrous then told the court: “It is not [fossil fuel] production and extraction that is driving this [temperature] increase, it is how people are leading their lives.”

Chevron’s focus on shifting responsibility to us, offers a glimpse into one of the fossil fuel industry’s potential strategies to avert liability for climate change in the trials to come. According to Peter Frumhoff, chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, it’s an argument we’ve heard before from tobacco companies: “Tobacco companies for years said that ‘We’re just making the cigarettes; people are choosing to smoke’”.

As a climate justice activist and researcher, it’s uncomfortable to say this, but the oil companies are kind of right. Boustrous is justified in highlighting that those suing oil companies are themselves significantly responsible for causing climate change, with studies showing that American cities among the worst greenhouse gas emitters in the world. While the cities and counties suing are now feeling the harms of past emissions, they also benefitted significantly from those emissions, and in doing so they have foisted the harms of carbon emissions on not just themselves, but the whole world.

So, are U.S. cities and counties simply being hypocritical in their efforts to sue Big Oil?

To start with, they are not being hypocritical because the lawsuits are typically suing oil companies not for their greenhouse gas emissions, but rather for spreading misinformation about climate change in order to promote the use of fossil fuels despite their harmful effects. In California, for instance, they are using nuisance law to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for deceiving the public, hiding negative information, and engaging in a campaign to prevent regulation.

As numerous studies and investigative reporting efforts have uncovered, fossil fuel companies knew as early as the 1960s that climate change was real and predominately human caused. According to UCLA law professor Ann Carlson, they were even planning around climate change, developing technologies to drill in the Arctic and raising their oil platforms to accommodate for sea level rise. However, while fossil fuel companies accepted the science of human-caused climate change internally, externally they engaged in a vast and well-funded campaign to spread doubt and misinform the public, resulting in arguably one of the most egregious and harmful corporate misinformation campaigns in history.

The industry’s dishonest actions played a major role in stalling progress on climate change. Their lies and propaganda stoked resistance to climate action, and the harm that inaction has caused cannot be taken back. For climate change, time lost means more devastating harm locked in, and the further closing of the already narrow window left to avert potentially catastrophic and irreversible impacts.

Like the tobacco companies before them, it is for their corrupted actions of deception and misinformation that fossil fuel companies are rightfully being sued and held to account. For their actions the fossil fuel industry owes all of humanity a large debt, and one that can never be truly settled, given all that will be lost to climate change. Thus, people the world over are justified in suing fossil fuel companies for their harmful efforts to hinder climate action.

However, there is a potential hypocrisy entailed by rich American cities and counties being the ones who are claiming climate reparations. After all, the United States is “the biggest carbon polluter in history”, and the richest country on earth, and the cities and counties suing are among the richest and biggest carbon emitters in America. That they would be the ones receiving climate reparations doesn’t seem quite equitable.

To see why, we can turn to concept of the Climate Paradox, which holds that, proportionately speaking, developed countries are the biggest causes of climate change, but are the least vulnerable to it; whereas the least developed countries are least responsible for climate change, but are most vulnerable to it. When it comes to climate change liability the injustices of this paradox seem to be compounding and forming an even deeper paradox, where the richest cities, most responsible for climate change, are the ones suing for compensation; whereas the least developed countries have been denied their claims for compensation for loss and damage. Perhaps we can call this the Climate Liability Paradox.

One of the ways the injustice of the Climate Liability Paradox might be alleviated is if the U.S. was also contributing to help developing countries grapple with climate change. However, the Trump Administration and Republican-controlled Congress cancelled America’s promised $2 billion in funding to the Green Climate Fund — a key channel for international climate finance, which helps developing countries deal with the impacts of climate change and pursue low-carbon and climate resilient development. And while $2 billion might sound like a lot, it is a lot less than the $3.8 billion per year the U.S. gives in military aid to (gross human rights violator) Israel, never mind the ~$600 billion it spends annually on its own military.

To avoid charges of hypocrisy being levelled at them, U.S. cities and counties who are suing Big Oil could follow the example of Paris, who is coincidentally also considering suing fossil fuel companies. Paris contributed $1.3 million to the Green Climate Fund, in addition to France’s $1 billion pledge. At the sub-national level Paris is joined by Quebec and three Belgian regions who have contributed to international climate finance, along with, at the national level, all other developed and several developing countries. Seattle and Massachusetts may soon join their ranks too, as they are working on becoming the first U.S. sub-national actors to contribute to international climate finance.

Following on the leadership of other sub-national actors, I propose that the rich high emitting cities and counties suing fossil fuel companies take a pledge, let’s tentatively call it the US Climate Debt Pledge. The pledge would recognize that in addition to being owed a climate debt from fossil fuel companies, American cities and counties recognize their climate debt to the developing world. To pay off their climate debt, those signing onto the pledge commit to raising money for international climate finance. One possible mechanism would be to contribute a portion of their potential lawsuit winnings to international climate finance, but other mechanisms are available too.

It is especially important for cities and counties suing fossil fuel companies to take the US Climate Debt Pledge to defuse the injustice and hypocrisy of the Climate Liability Paradox. However, it is also important that other U.S. individuals, corporations, foundations, cities, counites and states take action too. As I have argued in the Journal Ethics, Policy & Environment, contributing to international climate finance is a moral responsibility that should be taken on not just by those suing fossil fuel companies, but also by the United States at large.

Under almost any reasonable definition of climate justice, America, as the largest historical contributor to climate change and the richest country on earth, has a dual moral responsibility to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and to contribute to international climate finance. Such a recognition was central to the Paris Climate Agreement and is endorsed by a broad range of global civil society and every nation on earth barring America under Trump. Given the immoral actions of the U.S. federal government, that dual responsibility now falls to American citizens, companies, cities, counties, and states. While the We Are Still In movement is great, it has only addressed half of that responsibility.

Of course, not all Americans are equally responsible for contributing to and benefitting from greenhouse gas emissions, with those in poverty and communities of color being the least responsible for emissions, and also the most vulnerable to climate impacts. Mirroring inequities at the global level, it may be precisely these communities that are left out as rich cities seek to adapt to climate change. For instance, in New York city, a multi-billion-dollar barrier to protect against sea level rise is being built only around rich Manhattan, leaving the poorer areas relatively unprotected.

Manhattan’s wall for the rich is a symbol of a broader trend in American disaster resilience, where richer areas are prioritized over poorer areas. Inequity is even codified into the Army Corps of Engineers’ policies, which prioritize protecting more economically valuable areas, thus privileging the rich, who are most responsible for climate change. In disaster after disaster, from Sandy to Katrina, Maria to Harvey, we’ve seen how protective measures problematically preference the rich, leaving the poor and communities of color deeply vulnerable.

If these inequities in the American climate response continue, then the Climate Liability Paradox will be even deeper, where the richest people, in the richest cities, those most responsible for climate change, will be the ones who benefit from suing fossil fuel companies, whereas the world’s poor and vulnerable are made to shoulder the burdens of climate change, both in America and abroad. As such, not only should American cities and counties commit to supporting the most vulnerable abroad, they should also ensure their own adaptation measures assist the more vulnerable at home.

Taking into account the inequality in the United States and recognizing the need to address domestic inequities too, I propose that U.S. subnational actors sign on to a U.S. Climate Debt Pledge, whereby they pledge to contribute to financially support developing countries deal with climate change. Those funds can be donated to the likes of the Green Climate Fund, the Least Developed Countries Fund, or the Adaptation Fund. In the future, they may also be able to contribute to emerging funding vehicles aimed specifically at collecting climate finance from North American subnational actors, such as the Western Climate Fund or the American Climate Fund.

To end, we can turn to the words of the ministers of Vanuatu, Seychelles, Bangladesh, and Dominica, who represent some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and least responsible for causing the problem:
“It is not only unjust that we should pay the costs of loss and damage from a climate change we did not cause, this very iniquity is a force behind climate change. As long as those who profit from the production of greenhouse gases are not those who suffer its most extreme consequences, climate change will accelerate… [T]wo and a half years on from Paris, nothing has been done internationally to implement mechanisms to raise the amount of finance needed to offset the losses and damage of climate change for the most vulnerable. The resources currently available are no match for the costs…Resources to offset climate-related losses and damages need to be scaled up and the perpetrators, not the victims, must pay”.

About the author: Alex Lenferna is a Fulbright Scholar and Doctoral Candidate in the University of Washington Department of Philosophy; and an Endeavour Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales Practical Justice Initiative Climate Justice Research Stream. As a volunteer organizer with 350 Seattle, he has been helping lead advocacy efforts to get the city of Seattle to contribute to the Green Climate Fund.

Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition & campaigner with He has a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington.