Saturday 30 May 2015

Human Rights, Climate Change, Fossil Fuels and Civil Society

Last week I participated in the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre's event on Climate Change and International Human Rights Law. Below are my speaking notes.

My name is Julie-Anne Richards, and I’m here today partly in my capacity as Oxfam and also as Climate Justice Programme.  Oxfam needs no introduction.  Climate Justice Programme has been working in this area for a long time.  In 2003 CJP sent letters formally placing the major polluters and emitters of greenhouse gases on notice, reminding them of their potential legal liability if they failed to address the risks of climate change posed by their activities.  CJP also commissioned the Carbon Majors work - more on that later.

I feel the need to start with a reality check:
With less than 1 degree of warming we have already gone beyond the most vulnerable people’s capacity to adapt to climate change.  

The worst-ever typhoon (Haiyan) has wreaked devastation in the Philippines, possibly the worst cyclone in the Pacific (Pam) destroyed or damaged 80% of buildings in Vanuatu;  increasingly severe droughts in Africa and the Middle East have resulted in hunger, people forced off their land and conflict;  floods here in the UK and elsewhere;  the heat wave baking India right now has so far killed 1,000 people;  and “super” fire storms have become an all too frequent event in California and my home country Australia.

Climate change is possibly the biggest justice issue of all time.  Caused by the fossil fuel companies, but whose impacts largely fall upon those who have done the least to cause the crisis - the poorest and most vulnerable.  The people that Oxfam works with and for.   But lest we be lulled into a false sense of security, an analogy can be made to the Titanic. Those of us lucky enough to be here in first class or the “first world” might feel safe and secure, whilst those in “third class” are dealing with the icy water.  But the hull has been breached. and unless we do something about that breach, we’re all going down.

We have limited time to turn our trajectory around.  there are some key moments coming up - the Paris COP at the end of this year must be a crucial turning point - a point at which the world’s governments, business and citizens realise that we must do things differently.  

Happily, the world’s citizens are waking up. 400,000 people in the streets of NYC and nearly 3,000 events in 162 countries last September called loudly for ‘climate action now’.  The lead up to Paris will see more people, more voters on the street calling for action even more loudly.  

And organised civil society is also waking up and doing things differently.

There is more solidarity across civil society in seeing the links between climate change and other social issues - including inequality.

And there has been an increasing focus on the human rights aspect of climate change (for which the IBA can take some of the credit), and messaging of climate change from a values perspective (some of you may be familiar with the For The Love Of campaign).

Perhaps most noteworthy is a shift to identify and focus on the real climate change villains - the fossil fuel industry.

Both the excellent work done by Carbon Tracker on the Carbon Bubble - which showed that we have to leave 80% of fossil fuels in the ground - and the great work done by Bill McKibben and in making this “terrifying maths” and the solution to it personal and actionable - through their divestment campaign.

The divestment campaign has inspired enthusiasm worldwide, causing something like $50bn of funds to be allocated away from fossil fuel companies and within the last week forced the Commonwealth Bank to close branches in Melbourne and Sydney CBD and across Australia.  And soon, the biggest pension fund in the world, the Norwegian Pension Fund, might announce they will divest from coal.

A second, and important, nail in the fossil fuel coffin was the publication of the Carbon Majors research in late 2013.  the result of 8 years of work, this study helps to solve the ‘attribution’ dilemma.  We now know that Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Saudi Aramco are each responsible for more than 3% of global historical emissions.  And that BP, Shell, Gazprom are each responsible for more than 2% of emissions.

Together the products from these 90 “Carbon Majors” are responsible for two thirds of climate pollution since the industrial revolution began.  Two thirds of the climate change we - and poor people - are experiencing today.

This work opens the way for two options.

The first is litigation.  there are legal strategies and a number of cases being prepared now to bring against the fossil fuel industry by civil society. It’s highly likely that civil society won’t be the only ones bringing cases. As attribution of specific events improves (including through the work that Oxford University are doing) the insurance industry must surely be looking to recoup some of its monumental costs for events like Hurricane Sandy - $10-28bn.  There are already examples of governments taking to courts to seek injunctions (FSMicronesia against coal power in Czech Republic), no doubt there will be other examples as governments face increasing costs.

The second option, is a proposal that CJP and the Heinrich Boll Foundation put forward roughly a year ago, that the fossil fuel industry should pay for the climate damage of their products via a global fossil fuel extraction levy paid into the international mechanism for loss and damage.

The concept of a global fossil fuel extraction levy being paid into an international compensation mechanism for loss and damage has a solid basis in law and it has precedent - including the IOPC, the oil spill regime, where companies that ship oil around the world pay a levy into an international fund that is used for compensation in the case of oil spills.

This would both put a price on carbon - and simultaneously raise significant funds for the most vulnerable communities who are facing the worst impacts of climate change.  It’s a no-brainer, really, that the fossil fuel industry, who make trillions of dollars in profits, should pay for the damages their products are wreaking, rather than the poor.  

At even a low price of carbon - say $2 a tonne of CO2 - this levy would raise $50bn a year.  If it were to increase 5-10% a year it could provide a predictable source of finance at roughly the scale necessary for climate damage in vulnerable countries.  

Of course, it needs to be embedded within an overall plan to phase out fossil fuels.  Because if Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Saudi Aramco want a long term future - they need to learn to do something other than extract and sell fossil fuels.  

And if governments want to avoid one of two shocks - the terrible shock of climate change impacts OR the shock of the carbon bubble bursting - then they must put in place plans to phase out fossil fuels.  

With a clear plan the UK could phase out coal by 2023 whilst ensuring a just transition for workers into, the higher employing, renewable energy sector.

To close
It’s still possible to keep warming to below 1.5 degrees - hence avoiding absolute climate catastrophe - but we are too late to prevent all climate impacts.  In order to stop climate catastrophe we have to act now.  
Slight tweaks to business as usual might bend the curve from 4.3 to 3.7 degrees.  But to ensure a planet on which we think we can survive, radical change is necessary now.  

I encourage everyone in this room, I encourage you, to think about what radical action you will take to ensure you’re on the right side of history.

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