Explosive, graphic, and seeped in narratives of corporate irresponsibility, the disaster movie ‘Deepwater Horizon’ hit cinemas in recent weeks. Based on real events, the movie documents the largest manmade environmental disaster in US history: the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill. Following an explosion on the rig in April 2010, 800 million litres of oil streamed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Reporters’ photographs showed oil slicks spreading in every direction, and images of pelicans and other creatures, many of them dead, stranded oil-drenched on beaches. As well as extensive damage to marine life, the spill affected coastal wetlands and communities’ health and economies. As audiences gawp at the movie in cinemas, the real-life drama continues today. Studies show high death-rates and mutations in dolphins, turtles, and other species. The Gulf Coast’s human residents are also still reeling. Many have ‘untreatable’ long-term illnesses caused by contact with oil and other contaminants.
Deepwater Horizon could have been prevented: management strategies and safety procedures were inadequate and inconsistently implemented. In the light of serious environmental, ethical and economic charges, July 2015 saw BP agreeing to pay fines of $18.7 billion. This catastrophe alone is a case in point for holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their actions. There are many more.
With the Marrakech climate conference (COP22) coming up, decision makers must pay more attention to developing laws and policies which hold big corporations to account. Fossil-fuel giants endlessly find loopholes and avoid accountability. In January 2006, the oil company ExxonMobil spilled 40,000 litres of oil into the Mystic River, Massachusetts, and took years to admit responsibility. It now continues to abuse water quality permits, turning its back on the risk of pollution to local working-class communities of colour. These communities are already at a disadvantage because of their low incomes and societal discrimination. They have scarce resources to face up to Exxon.
Exxon is also embroiled in a bitter dispute based in New York. Prosecutors claim that the company has deliberately misled the public and the energy industry about climate change since the 1970s in order to protect its own interests. Exxon, despite possessing data and original research which showed that burning oil would cause global warming, took advice from similarly deceitful tobacco industry leaders in order to drive climate-denial campaigns. Such denial has contributed to the growth of an industry which has caused rapid global warming.
The tobacco industry hides injustices in plain sight, using its economic power to tip the scales in its favour whilst causing millions of deaths each year. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy stated at the 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health that every tobacco-related death is a ‘tragedy’ precisely because it is preventable. The same goes for the deaths and damage caused by fossil-fuel companies.
Even if corporations manage their activities effectively and with greater transparency, some of the environmental impacts cannot be avoided. Many, such as flooding, tropical storms, desertification and drought overcome the human ability to adapt. All too often developing countries, and the most vulnerable communities, bear the brunt of the effects. Such unavoidable impacts are referred to as ‘loss and damage’.
The ‘90 oil, gas and coal companies [that] are responsible for 63% of our CO2 emissions… should fund the loss and damage mechanism’. So claims the Climate Justice Programme (CJP), a not for profit organisation which calls for climate justice through climate law. This international ‘mechanism’, established at the 2013 Warsaw climate conference, could be put to work to provide financial and legal support for those communities and habitats most affected by loss and damage.
Stricter climate laws can also work alongside activism. It was by standing up to Shell and relentlessly demanding justice that In September 2015, NGOs, the public and energy experts contributed to the corporation’s decision to abandon plans to drill in the Arctic. Shell’s proposal disrespected the rights of Inuit who live in the region, and would have severely disrupted one of the remaining pristine environments on the planet. This strong, vocal and productive opposition is the sort of ‘holding accountable for the future’ which must continue.
Laurence Tubiana, speaking at Oxford’s 1.5 Degrees Conference in September, said that ‘[at the climate conference in Paris] we wanted to make everyone feel responsible for emissions’. And responsibility must also extend to the material, root cause of our problems: to the initial extraction of coal, oil and gas. Everything is connected. No-one should feel more responsible than fossil-fuel companies and those who support and subsidise them despite long-standing evidence that we must act to the contrary.
As Bill McKibben put it in Oxford last month, ‘this battle is now fully engaged all over the world!’ Many activist, journalist and conservation groups such as 350.org, the WWF, Climate Tracker and Climate Action Network are deep in the fray, calling for justice. May this continue until it is no longer a battle, no longer an explosive struggle over accountability, no longer the inspiration for another disaster movie, but a cohesive, global movement working together for people, planet and climate justice.
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Katja Garson. Katja holds an MSc in Environmental Governance from the University of Oxford, and is a member of Climate Tracker. Follow her on Twitter @kmgarson