By William S. Becker
In Part 1 of this post, I gave an overview of the growing number of climate-change lawsuits underway in the United States and worldwide. I asked whether they are making any difference in ending the long negligence Republican presidents, Congress and the business sector have shown in doing something about the climate crisis.
So, is litigation doing some good? The answer is an unequivocal “maybe”.
Now under the control of Democrats, several committees in the House of Representatives are gathering testimony on various dimensions of climate change. It is a given, however, that no actual climate bill will be approved by the GOP-controlled Senate or by Trump. The House is merely laying the groundwork in hopes that Democrats win the presidency and Congress in 2020.
The Green New Deal, an ambitious aspirational resolution introduced in the House by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has inspired the liveliest public debate in memory about clean energy and climate change. Several of the Democrats’ candidates for president have embraced it.
Nevertheless, moderators have given only a few minutes to the crisis in the presidential candidates’ debates so far. When Greenpeace sent a request for each of the 20 candidates to identify their positions on climate change, especially on the Green New Deal and the “responsible phase-out” of fossil fuels, only five responded by July 1. Greenpeace went ahead and evaluated the public positions of all 20; only nine received grades of “B” or higher (Inslee, Booker, Sanders, Warren, Biden, Gillibrand, Gabbard, Williamson and O’Rouke).
In the private sector, lawsuits or the threat of litigation seem to be pushing some companies to pay more attention to their climate risks. Bloomberg Intelligence says those risks include “capital flight” by investors and insurers who are growing more worried about the impacts of climate change.
Chubb Ltd., the nation’s largest commercial insurance company, is the first major American insurer to announce that it is backing away from insuring and investing in coal. Chubb says it will stop underwriting the construction of new coal-fired power plants and investing in companies that generate more than 30% of their revenues from coal mining or production.
Meanwhile, more than 450 institutional investors that manage some $30 trillion in assets have called for carbon pricing, a date-certain end of fossil fuel subsidies, and the worldwide phaseout of fossil-fueled power plants. Yet 33 global banks have invested a combined $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel companies since 2015 — the year that nations signed the Paris climate accord. “This ambition gap is of great concern to investors and needs to be addressed, with urgency,” the investors’ statement said.
A study published earlier this month in the journal Nature calculates that the fossil-fuel-burning power plants, factories, vehicles, and buildings that are operating or being built around the world will warm the Earth more than 1.5oC (the new “safe” threshold) unless they are retired early. The continued construction of fossil-energy infrastructure leaves two bad options: It either locks the world into using fossil fuels for many years to come, well past the danger point, or the infrastructure becomes “stranded assets” before it pays off investors. The “stranded assets” outcome is a possibility because scientists say that trillions of dollars’ worth of economically recoverable oil, gas, and coal should remain in the ground.
The good news is that, by the end of last year, the divestment movement had secured commitments from more than 1,000 institutions to pull $8 trillion of their investments out of fossil fuels. The bad news is that it’s only a fraction of the $100 trillion global capital market. “At present, [divestment] has had a pretty minimal impact on the industry,” according to Richard Taylor, an oil and gas industry analyst at Fitch Solutions.
So here we are. If there is a movement for the economy to become net-zero carbon by 2050, it is still embryonic. Opportunism, denial, and profiteering seem to be suffocating caution. It is inevitable that growing deaths, destruction and disruption from climate change will begin the end of the fossil fuel era. But how long will that take, and will it be soon enough?