Make Them Pay at Last


Democrats are retroactively demanding several billions of dollars in damages from the biggest carbon dioxide producers in the world. This push should make at least three German companies nervous.

It is very unpleasant to confront the fact, but every day it is becoming more difficult to ignore, even for people who really try. Humanity has already changed the world’s climate in a way that is causing substantial damage.

This week, there were so many wildfires worldwide that the climate and environmental department of Deutsche Welle tweeted, “There are so many, it’s hard to keep up with how many countries are currently burning.”

According to one recent study, the Gulf Stream may be facing a permanent weakening, which would have further catastrophic consequences for the climate in Europe and North America. In the Andes, so little snow is falling that many places are threatened by a scarcity of water. In international reporting, the flooding catastrophes in Germany and China are already yesterday’s news.

The Polluters Should Pay for Damages

There is now terrifying climate news every week. And that won’t stop.

At the same time, it was expected that all of this would happen; climate scientists have warned about it for decades. And there’s someone else who knew about it for decades: the corporations whose products are chiefly responsible for the warming of the planet, most of all the oil and coal companies. For decades they prevented us from finally stopping turning fossil fuels into carbon dioxide.

Now a group of Democrats wants the most powerful polluters and biggest profiteers in the crisis to pay retroactively. They would not just pay carbon taxes in the future, but also pay retroactively for damages that their business models have already caused.

Specifically Named: ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Shell and Chevron

The bill by Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland would require U.S. agencies to identify the companies responsible for producing the largest amount of greenhouse gases in the years 2000 and 2019, and then make them pay proportionally. Van Hollen estimates this could bring in $500 billion over the next 10 years. Subsequently, he wants to invest this income in the research of renewable energy and in aid for regions affected by climate-induced catastrophes. The proposal is currently supported by five other senators including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

According to Van Hollen, the bill would affect “U.S.-based fossil fuel extractors and oil refiners and foreign-owned companies doing business in the U.S.” The bill specifically names ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Shell and Chevron.

’A Simple but Powerful Idea’

At the core of the bill is the “simple but powerful idea that polluters should pay to help clean up the mess they caused,” Van Hollen told The New York Times. The bill would affect only those companies responsible for at least 0.05% of global carbon dioxide and methane emissions from 2009 to 2019. Older data are not sufficiently reliable or consistent.

The New York Times refers to a study by scientist Richard Heede, who currently works for the Climate Accountability Institute.

Three German Companies Are in the Top 90

Heede ascribes almost two-thirds of all historical greenhouse gas emissions up to the year 2010 to just 90 polluters: companies, many of which are state-owned, and (usually communist) nation states. The full list cites the Soviet Union and China with a historical share far above 8% each, but American companies ChevronTexaco and ExxonMobil come next with well over 3% each, closely followed by Saudi Aramco, BP, Gazprom and Royal Dutch Shell.

Of course, today this list is no longer up to date because in the years since 2010, China has vigorously increased its share of global carbon dioxide output and is currently the largest single emitter. However, Heede’s table portrays the historical blame for the climate crisis very vividly.

The historical top 90 also includes three German companies: At number 84 is HeidelbergCement, at number 71 is Ruhrkohle AG, and RWE is at number 28.

No Requirement to Prove Negligence or Intentional Harm]

I can imagine that the push by the Democrats is also making one or two German executives nervous. In the future, for companies whose business model requires producing raw carbon dioxide, it will not just be a matter of fending off genuinely effective carbon pricing for as long as possible. Suddenly, it’s also possible that they could one day be held accountable for all the money that they have recklessly earned by destroying the foundations of human well being. Other countries will figure this out, too, if things get even worse.

There are legislative models to deal with this. For example, in the United States in 1980, companies found guilty of violating legal restrictions were required by law to co-finance the clean up of regions harmed by poisonous substances. Another example is that of the litigation against the U.S. tobacco industry, which knowingly misled its customers about the dangers of smoking and the addictive potential of nicotine.

However, according to The New York Times, the new bill does not require that fossil fuel companies be convicted of deliberate lies: “There is no requirement to prove negligence or intentional wrongdoing. The proposal does not assign blame for specific damages — it simply ensures that these companies contribute to the solution.”

About this publication


About Michael Stehle 33 Articles
I am a recent graduate of the University of Maryland with a BA in Linguistics and Germanic Studies. I have a love for language and I find translation to be both an engaging activity as well as an important process for connecting the world.

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