Last Tuesday, the air quality in Calgary hit a level in the range hazardous to human health. According to meteorologist Jaclyn Whittal, Alberta had the “worst air quality in the entire world.” The villain of course was smoke from the wildfires raging across the province.
And who were the villains who caused the fires? One was the usual suspect, Mother Nature and her lightening strikes aided by drought. Others were humans careless with their campfires and other recklessness.
And there is another very important agent whose villainy is increasingly becoming understood. According to an article in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the emissions of the world’s largest 88 carbon producers contributed to “37 percent of the burned area in the forested lands of western U.S. and southwestern Canada since 1986.” The infamous 88 include the major fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers.
Another study, reported on the One Earth website, calculated the amount owed by the top twenty-one fossil fuel companies for causing wildfires and other destructive events. Sociologists Marco Grasso and Richard Heede surveyed over 700 climate economists to gain data about the financial costs associated with global warming. They estimated that the companies should pay reparations of $5.4 trillion US over the years 2025 to 2050.
The authors based the reparations on the companies’ operational and product-related emissions from 1988, the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established, to 2022. Companies in poor countries would be exempt.
The biggest debtor was, not surprisingly, Saudi Aramco, whose annual payment over the 50-year period would average $43 billion, next was Russian’s Gazprom at $20 billion and then ExxonMobil at $18 billion. All payments would start high and decline to zero by 2050.
The authors view is that, “Fossil fuel companies have a moral responsibility to affected parties for climate harm and have a duty to rectify such harm. Moral theory and common sense—as well as international environmental agreements through the polluter pays principle embodied in article 16 of the 1992 Rio Declaration, which calls for the ‘internalization of environmental costs’—demand that historical wrongdoing must be rectified.”
The justice in their argument is irresistible, but the possibility of actually establishing an international accord for reparations is remote. Nonetheless their work may provide powerful arguments for the increasing number of court cases the fossil fuel companies are facing.
Here in Alberta we entertain an interesting irony. As the pollution province in one of the leading countries of greenhouse gas production, we are a major climate villain. And with our raging wildfires caused largely by emissions, we would seem to also be a climate victim. Do our own companies pay us reparations? Maybe royalties aren’t enough.