Saul Luciano Lliuya lives near Huaraz, a city in the Andes. Huaraz may not exist much longer, thanks to the swiftly melting Churup Glacier. The glacier feeds a lake which has grown more than thirty times in volume over the past four decades, and threatens to swallow Huaraz, along with Lliuya’s home and his farm. Scientists believe that the lake’s growth is a direct result of global warming. Lliuya has written letters of complaint to companies that contribute significantly to CO2 emissions, in the hopes of raising enough money to combat the problem and save his town and livelihood. His letters have gone unanswered.
Legal or Political Barriers?
Lliuya, after being ignored by energy giant RWE, the “biggest single emitter of CO2” in Europe, has decided to take a different route, with the help of NGO Germanwatch: he’s suing. While many people believe that ascribing legal fault to companies that contribute to climate change is untenable, others disagree, like Andrew Gauge, West Coast Environmental Law Staff Counsel. Gage contends that the problem with tackling companies and holding them accountable for their contributions to global warming is not without legal precedent. Instead, he says, “The reality is that the barriers are political, not legal.”
That’s why Lliuya’s case against RWE is attracting so much notice. Even if the farmer doesn’t succeed, the outcome of the case could open the doors for future cases. As Gage puts it, “You can’t have a business model where you know you are causing billions of dollars of harm each year,” while discounting any responsibility for that damage. “Sooner or later, that conversation comes back to you.”
Global Warming, Climate Change, and Blame
While Gage’s position certainly makes sense, especially from the perspective of groups that want to help preserve the planet and the quality of life we enjoy here, the issue is somewhat more complex than he paints it. After all, companies have had that precise business model for some time, and it’s not because no one has protested against it in the past.
We know that the damage wrought by climate change is extreme: up to $700 billion annually, and increasing, and that’s only what’s directly traceable to global warming. We also know that companies with large carbon footprints are undoubtedly contributing to these changes. What we don’t know, however, is which changes are directly the result of human contributions, and which changes are the result of weather events that may have happened without human intervention.
That is, we know that global warming is a factor in the melting of the Churup Glacier, which in turn threatens Huaraz and those who live there. We know that companies contribute to global warming. What we don’t know is whether or not RWE’s actions could reasonably (or legally) be linked with one specific climate change event which may have happened without RWE’s actions.
It seems clear, however, that whether or not a formula to determine fault is achieved in Lliuya’s case against RWE, efforts to find a way to make companies pay for the damage they contribute to aren’t slowing down. The Human Rights Commission of the Philippines represents another group that is seeking similar resolution by investigating whether or not companies that profit from fossil fuels can be held accountable. Their focus has sharpened after a Greenpeace petition identified a list of “carbon majors”—fossil fuel companies that have topped the list in terms of carbon emissions.
A Sustainable Future
Assigning fault in these cases may feel cathartic for underdogs like Lliuya, but presuming that these cases are primarily about punishing companies isn’t a truly helpful perspective. The fact of the matter is, global warming is a phenomenon that is causing irreversible changes in our planet and in the lives of those that live here. If Churup’s lake swallows Huaraz, an entire community will lose their homes. If we continue to ignore the consequences of climate change, that will be only the beginning. The Marshall Islands are disappearing, and will completely disappear, if the planet warms another two degrees.
Assigning fault when it comes to climate change is less about pointing fingers and more about asking the most powerful companies in the world to help offset the damage that’s already been done and to think clearly about maintaining a sustainable future. Asking RWE for funds to help save Huaraz needn’t be viewed as a punitive measure, but instead should be seen as a realistic solution to an issue that is threatening human beings and ecosystems around the globe.
Whether or not RWE is found legally liable, Gage is right about one thing: It’s time to start taking responsibility:
“If you’ve got a company that [knows] its product is directly contributing on a very significant scale to causing billions of dollars of harm and death and displacing people from their lands, and they’re making billions of dollars in profit doing that, I think there is a very live question about whether they can just say, ‘Well, we don’t bear any responsibility.’”
Forcing companies to take responsibility legally may not be the most elegant solution, and it may not be the most efficient. But the time for letters of complaint, as Lliuya has discovered, seems to be over. Most companies are not, seemingly, willing to step up and take responsibility, it must instead by foisted upon them.
It’s likely to be a long, complex, and difficult battle, not only for Lliuya but for others who take on these heavy contributors to climate change. But unfortunately, it’s the only real route available to those that are running out of time. Huaraz does not have the luxury of waiting for companies like RWE to voluntarily decide to contribute to finding solutions for the damages they’ve caused. Nor do the Marshall Islanders, more of whose homes are washed away each year.
Whether the barriers are legal, political, or fiscal, the costs of not overcoming them are severe: the loss of human life, communities, and irreplaceable ecosystems.