A tree at night illuminated by a wildfire.
A shot of the Dunn Road fire in Australia. Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty
Environment

It's Clear Who's to Blame for Australia's Fires, and It's Not Arsonists

Make the oil companies pay, says an expert who studies the world's worst polluters.
January 13, 2020, 2:58pm

The Australian bushfires that have so far killed at least 28 people and potentially more than a billion animals are due to the actions of a relatively small number of people. No, not the several dozen arsonists that Rupert Murdoch's right-wing media outlets have attempted to blame for the crisis. That's a false claim that's been given a huge platform in the U.S. by Donald Trump Jr. and Sean Hannity.

The true arsonists responsible for one of the worst fire seasons in Australian history are the people who lead 90 of the world's most polluting companies, including oil and gas producers like Chevron, Exxon, Shell, BP, Gazprom, and Saudi Aramco, as well as major coal producers like Coal India and Peabody Energy. Together, these "carbon majors" are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the industrial greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere since the mid-1750s.

Global heating caused by these emissions contributed to the warmest and driest year ever recorded in Australia, which, when combined with later-than-usual monsoon rains and strong winds, led to fires that have burned close to 18 million acres across the country, more than nine times what was burned during California's horrific wildfire season in 2018.

Australia's government nevertheless argues that there is no direct link between the bushfires and climate change, and that any action to reduce emissions is unwelcome because it will hurt the country's exports of coal and natural gas. But in a recent interview with VICE, Richard Heede, the Colorado-based researcher who named the carbon majors in a 2013 paper and continues to quantify their massive climate footprint with the Climate Accountability Institute, said we need to see this disaster for what it truly is: the collateral damage of a business model that benefits only a tiny few while endangering the rest of us. Below is our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity:

VICE: Is it fair to say that the carbon majors bear some responsibility for the bushfires in Australia?
Richard Heede: Absolutely. Quantitatively, the case is pretty straightforward. They have manufactured, produced, and sold fossil fuel products for decades with the knowledge that those products would warm the climate. They have a substantial responsibility for the damages that their products have caused. But also on a political level, they have argued to Congress and other legislators around the world for subsidies to their industry that lower the cost of their products in the marketplace. This has effectively distorted the market and delayed the implementation of alternatives like renewable electricity. So they're responsible for the climate damages that result from having not only produced a lot of the fossil fuels themselves, but delayed political action to deal with climate change.

Chevron recently gave $1 million to the Australia fire efforts, which sounds like a large amount. But is that sufficient?
Well, any help to aid the efforts of Australian firefighters is worthwhile. But of course it's a minuscule drop in the bucket compared to Chevron's investments in additional oil and gas resources. The company's capital expenditures for 2020 are $20 billion, for example.

Should the carbon majors be on the hook for some of the costs associated with climate disasters like the bushfires?
The courts will have to decide whether their climate denial campaigns, their lobbying efforts and their misrepresentation of climate science to the public, as well as to consumers, rises to the level where they're held financially liable for damages. But in my view, they all are responsible for a substantial proportion of climate change. And we now know that increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere leads to sea level rise, to increased storms, to floods. As we see in Australia and in the western United States, it also leads to devastating fires.

You mentioned legal challenges. Is that ultimately what it's going to take to cause the carbon majors to pay their fair share for destruction linked to their business models?
It would be reasonable to expect carbon majors to help pay for the damages they have caused, whether they be from sea level rise or floods or fires. But I'm equally interested in making sure that they shift capital investment away from additional fossil fuel resources that they will want to produce and sell and shift their investments into alternative energy and carbon capture and sequestration so that we can avoid the worst of future climate damages.

And what role do Australia's political leaders play in all this?
The Australian government continues to not only subsidize fossil fuel developments, but substantially deny that their coal exports and liquified natural gas exports are linked to climate change. They export in excess of 200 million tons of coal every year, and they should bear some responsibility for that and adjust their own domestic policies.

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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change_. Follow him on_ Twitter.