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We Now Know Who Is Responsible For A Third Of US Wildfires: Should We Hold Them Accountable?
Hint: Yes, but how?
Sometimes, it can feel like climate change is a problem for the future. Something we should prepare for and avert from happening. We forget that we have been systematically polluting and decimating this beautiful Earth for over 150 years, and climate change’s terrible teeth have already had plenty of time to sink in. The thing is, we now have the data and technology to figure out both the extent of climate change and who is responsible. Take a recent study that found that 88 of the world’s largest carbon emitting companies are responsible for a third of US wildfires since 1980! But what should we do with this knowledge? Should we hold these companies accountable? And if so, how?
The scale of wildfire damage to the US and Canada is utterly astonishing. In 2020, 16,000 square miles were burnt by wildfires, which is about the same land area as Denmark. These wildfires decimate ecosystems, threaten human life (directly or through respiratory problems), and unleash an astonishing amount of carbon dioxide, which furthers the climate problem. Just the Californian wildfires alone killed 33 people, caused an economic loss of $19 billion, costs to keep the blaze under “control” were around $2.1 billion, and the fires released 140 million tonnes of CO2 into the environment or about the same weight as 384 Empire State buildings.
Now, wildfires are an important part of many American ecosystems. They act to refreshen the ecosystem and recycle nutrients, allowing new life to flourish. But these ecosystems evolved around far less frequent and far less widespread fires. But, thanks to climate change causing longer, dryer seasons, both the frequency and size of wildfires have dramatically increased to the point at which they are now detrimental to these ecosystems.
So, when a recent study was published that concluded 88 companies are responsible for more than a third of the wildfires in the US and Canada, it was a huge shock. This study used climate models to figure out how much our carbon emissions have decreased the water vapour content of the air around wildfire areas in the US and Canada and, therefore, what portion of wildfires in the past forty years have been caused by climate change. They then correlated this with data on how much of humanity’s global carbon emissions are from the largest emitting companies; this is fairly easy, as 71% of the world’s emissions come from just 100 companies. This enabled them to figure out how much of the US and Canadian wildfires are being driven by this small number of highly polluting companies.
Of the roughly 330,000 square miles of wildfires since 1980, they found that over a third, which is over 110,000 square miles, or the same area as Italy, were caused by the emissions of only 88 of the world’s top polluting companies, such as Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil and Shell.
Now, many will say that studies like this are based on speculation or use less-than-accurate climate models that are misguiding. I’m sure you have heard all of these arguments on a certain podcast or spouted by public figures who don’t understand climate science. But the fact is, the methodology behind these studies has been proven to be very robust.
You see, over the past 50 years, the amount of accurate meteorological data we have gathered and the power of supercomputers has expanded exponentially! This has allowed many climate models from the 70s, 80s and 90s to accurately predicted the current levels of global warming, and weather patterns today, proving the accuracy of these models. So, we can accurately predict how carbon dioxide emissions will impact the climate, from overall temperature to humidity and even levels of precipitation.
We have also developed methods to accurately measure the carbon emissions of the world’s largest polluters, and numerous studies have found a link between climate change causing drying, longer seasons and increased wildfire frequency and size.
In short, to argue against this latest study would take a vast amount of new data and research that simply doesn’t exist.
But there are a plethora of other studies like it, that link climate change caused by the world’s largest polluters to massive ecological, economical and humanitarian damage.
So, should we hold these massive polluters responsible?
Well, there are two problems with that line of thought.
Firstly, how do we convince lawmakers to hold these companies to account? A lot of them prop up entire economies, fund political campaigns and employ a vast number of people. Just getting governments or courts to consider acting against them for the damage they have caused will be incredibly difficult.
But, the ecocide movement, which hopes to make purposely damaging the environment an international crime, could progress this. But, once this does get to court, what then?
What punishment fits the crime? The damage has been done, and will continue to be done until climate change is halted and reversed. Do we hold them accountable for all the climate damage they have caused? Or just the damage caused by them dragging their heels on adapting to climate — friendlier technologies. If the latter, how do we accurately quantify that?
Another solution that avoids these issues is to fine them for annual damages caused by them going forward? But, if we do this, they will just pass these costs onto the consumer, as these companies are large enough to command entire markets. Fining them will also just legitimise their pollution, and give them a back door to escape the necessary changes they need to make to save the planet, potentially leading to yet more destruction.
In short, we can now verify the damage being done to the planet, and who is causing it. The problem is: How do we hold them to account? I wish I had an answer, an obvious solution that would force these corporations to change rapidly and meet our climate targets. But that doesn’t exist, as this isn’t a simple problem. While these studies do open the door to us being able to hold those responsible for climate change to account, we are far from having the ability to actually do so.