Of course they should be forced to pay. That they haven't is just a sign of how crazy our political system has gotten since the Reagan years. Hopefully we'll be returning to saner times soon, because things are changing so quickly. Via Peter C Frumhoff and Naomi Oreskes in The Guardian:
Shell, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil are also members and funders of the API and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA). Late last year, a leaked presentation from WSPA revealed a stealth campaign to block climate policies in California by backing a constellation of astroturf groups with names such as the “California Drivers Alliance” and “Californians Against Higher Taxes”.
Exactly how much fossil fuel companies have spent to support disinformation remains shrouded in secrecy, in part because they are not required to report their political and public relations spending. Robert Brulle, a social scientist at Drexel University, estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed from corporations, ideological foundations, and groups that oppose climate policy and often sow doubt about mainstream climate science.
Such spending is big money in politics, but it pales in comparison to the staggering costs of climate change. New York City alone estimates it will cost nearly $20bn over a decade to protect its citizens against rising seas and more extreme weather. The bipartisan Risky Business Project estimates that over the next 15 years, sea-level rise and storm surge are expected to increase damage from East and Gulf Coast storms by $2bn to $3.5bn. They also conclude that more extreme heat could cause corn, wheat, soy and cotton yields to decline 10% or more in some southern and midwestern counties.
Who will pay these and other costs of preparing for now inevitable changes? Right now, by default, this responsibility falls largely to taxpayers.
But shouldn’t fossil fuel companies bear some responsibility to pay for the harms resulting from their products?
Tobacco companies were found liable for damage from cigarettes. Those companies also deceived the public about the realities of scientific research on smoking. In fact, they funded some of the same scientists and groups fossil fuel companies have relied on to spread misinformation. The tobacco companies were held accountable, in part, because they colluded to deceive the public and policymakers about the risks their products caused.
Similarly, after scientific evidence on the cancer-causing risks of asbestos was established, producers of asbestos and manufacturers of products containing it were also held liable for damages.
The magnitude of the fossil energy industry’s contribution to the climate problem is enormous. Researchers have found that just 90 entities – including the world’s largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell – are responsible for extracting the coal, oil, and gas that have produced about two-thirds of all industrial carbon pollution. For decades, these same companies have sought to obscure the risks of using their products, and sought to deny and delay regulation – increasing the risks society faces from a changing climate.
It is not too late for fossil fuel companies to take responsible action. Shell and BP’s support for shareholder resolutions calling on them to invest in low-carbon energy is a first step. But investors – and society at large – should expect far more.
We should expect fossil fuel companies to stop supporting climate disinformation and distance themselves publicly from trade associations and lobbying groups that do. We should expect them to make their political spending transparent. And we should expect them to pay a fair share of the costs of limiting the damages from climate change, which a more expedited transition to low carbon economy could have – and should have – avoided.