Thursday, March 16, 2006

Who's Responsible?

A friend sent me a link to a fascinating story in Salon (you may have to watch an ad to read the article) that describes an intriguing form of leverage on companies that emit large quantities of greenhouse gases, yet refuse to acknowledge the problem. The article suggests that companies such as Exxon might respond to hints that their Directors & Officers insurance policies, which are essential to recruiting and maintaining high-quality boards, might not cover them if they were sued for the consequences of climate change. This is fascinating speculation, but it fails to address the larger issue of who should really be held responsible for all these emissions. Hint: it isn't only the companies who produce the fuels we burn.

The insurance industry has long been at the leading edge of business sensitivity to climate change; they know they will bear the cost of the increasingly frequent extreme weather predicted as a consequence of sustained climate change. So it's no surprise to me that they should worry about the possibility that their fossil-fuel company clientele might eventually be sued for contributing to a hurricane or flood, irrespective of the reality that weather and climate are distinctly different things.

For that matter, I have warned oil company colleagues and clients for years that they need to worry not only about the emissions for which they are directly responsible, from operating oil & gas wells, pipelines, and refineries, but also the much larger quantities resulting from the end uses of petroleum products. However, my warnings weren't based on a conviction that this is where the responsibility ought to fall. Rather, they arose from my assessment of the horribly skewed tort system in this country, which creates incentives for plaintiffs to sue on the flimsiest logic, on the chance that some jury might be gullible enough to buy it. During my years in the UK I was impressed by their defense against this gambit; you must weigh the merits of your case pretty carefully, if you risk having to pay the defendant's legal costs in the event you lose.

So to whom do we look, if not to Exxon, Shell, Chevron, et al? I think BP poses exactly the right question in new ads that ask, "What's your carbon footprint?" Like it or not, we cannot divorce ourselves from our responsibility for the emissions we create. Who chose the car I bought, instead of a hybrid? Who decides whether I drive to the grocery store or walk instead? Not the government, and certainly not the oil company whose gas I buy. Recognizing my own responsibility, I purchased a Terra Pass, to offset my car's greenhouse gas emissions.

No matter how much delight some might take in seeing Big Oil's top executives sworn in for another Senate hearing on high gas prices, the energy industry is not the tobacco industry to be handed over to the tender mercies of the plaintiff's bar. In spite of the President's recent comments about oil addiction, oil is not some optional vice; it remains the cornerstone of the global economy and the sine qua non of life in the early 21st century. That won't always be true, and much of this blog is devoted to a ongoing discussion on how and when such a transition might take place. In the meantime, each of us contributes to climate change every day. Blaming it all on the companies that sell us fuel is just a handy way to rationalize the status quo, as if our own choices had no impact.

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