The industries that have fuelled the climate crisis, funded climate denial, and blocked just climate progress for decades must pay for the damage they have caused. Holding them liable means ensuring that they are held criminally and financially responsible, and that they are made to end the practices that have driven this crisis in the first place.
The question of who should pay for the loss and damage of climate change raises familiar problems in distributive justice: Should rich countries pay be¬cause they are richer or because they have emitted more? We can add another: or because they’ve inherited more of the liabilities from global racial empire?
In the last few weeks, like many others, I have sent money to a range of different GoFundMe and Chuffed campaigns for flood impacted communities across NSW and Queensland—for the Aboriginal Community of Lismore, the brilliant Quandamooka artist Megan Cope and infamous counter culture ratbag Chris Lego; as well as dear friends who have lost everything to the mud and water. I refreshed each of the pages regularly, gratified to see them reach their targets quickly.
While it is heart-warming to see how quickly we can get cash into the hands of people who need it right now, it begs the question of who should actually be paying for the recovery.
We know that every La Niña will bring more of these devastating floods and storm cells. We know that in the drier years of El Niño we will be facing increasingly catastrophic bushfires. We are running out of adjectives to convey the scale and ferocity of the disasters we face.
The climate emergency is here—we are living in it.
Initial estimates put the clean-up bill for these floods in the billions. Communities affected by the deadly fires of summer 2019-20 still haven’t seen the resources they need to properly recover; people are still living in tents two years later. We can’t leave communities to fend for themselves in the wake of these destructive events.
The government has a $4.7bn disaster fund. Insurance companies will be paying out by the millions and citizen crowdfunds are going to transfer millions, too. But it shouldn’t be our taxes or our private cash or the insurance firms who foot the bill for this mess. It is those who got us in to this disaster who must pay—the planet-wrecking fossil fuel companies.
Australian fossil fuel companies are projected to export more than $379bn worth of oil and gas by June this year. According to research from Market Forces, as many as sixty-two of these companies paid no tax in 2019-20.
As we process the magnitude of these floods, while still trying to make sense of the black summer fires, it is clear that we are going to need significant resources to manage the ongoing, rolling crises that will define our lives in the decades to come. As these impacts become more and more frequent, we need to organise around the idea that those responsible for the climate crisis must pay for the mess they have made.
The polluter pays principle (PPP) is not new. It was embedded in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and has a variety of applications in both binding and non-binding laws, policies and conventions around the world.
This principle is what underpins attempts to place a price or tax on carbon and emissions. Contested as they are, these policies don’t go far enough in taking into account either historic emissions or the colonial context in which they were accelerated.
Both the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action and The Australia Institute call for a $1 per tonne levy on carbon pollution from fossil fuel production to be introduced to raise money for the National Climate Disaster Fund. In May 2021, the Greens introduced the Liability for Climate Change Damage Bill (Make the Polluters Pay). These and all the attempts to put a price on carbon are a necessary beginning, but we need to go further again—not just charging them for the damage they do now, but making them liable for the damage they have already done. We need powerful government intervention, commensurate with the scale of the ever-worsening crises we face.
Social movements can no longer just ask for what we think is politically possible—we have to ask for what is required.
First, we urgently need to get off fossil fuels. To start that transition we need to rule out any further government subsidies to coal, oil or gas extraction, which currently sit at over $12bn a year. We need an immediate ban on all new fossil fuel projects and to invest in substantive planning and funding for a rapid transition for workers and communities currently reliant on these industries. Then we need to raid their coffers and take back the profits they have made trashing our shared home. They must pay for the years of preparedness and ongoing disaster recoveries ahead of us.
There are precedents for this kind of payout. In Australia we have seen successful class actions for those impacted by asbestos. In Canada, a recent decision saw tobacco companies forced to pay $15bn in compensation and punitive damages. Around the world there are lawsuits taking place to hold fossil fuel companies to account, such as a group of cases in the US based on the idea that
the industry severely aggravated the environmental crisis with a decades-long campaign of lies and deceit to suppress warnings from their own scientists about the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and dupe the American public.
On this continent, we must understand the gigantic wealth of the fossil fuels companies in the context of invasion. The idea of addressing historic injustice and the ways in which the colonial project has fuelled the climate crisis is increasingly being understood as Climate Reparations. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò explains that the ‘historical connections between the climate crisis and our present systems of injustice help explain why a just future depends on reparations.’ Approaching the polluter pays principles with a justice lens takes in to account the colonial debt owed on this continent and can be seen as an important extension of growing calls and commitments to Pay the Rent in this settler colony.
We need to develop regulatory mechanisms that reflect the specific histories of theft—of labour and of land—that enabled so much wealth to be accrued. We need to set up mechanisms to distribute that wealth that are reparatory and that are embedded in and informed by truth telling and Treaty processes.
I spent the peak days of the floods scrolling, in awe as people set up ingenious shared Googledocs, watching in real time as people scoured social media for rescue alerts and relayed information and addresses to people out in boats. Following the organising lead by the Koori Mail and many other across the Northern Rivers and the Bandjalung community. Amazing. And yet—how is it that we are at this stage of the climate crisis without significant investment, crisis and preparedness training across the continent? Why are communities cobbling together shared excel spreadsheets to find old people in roof cavities?
Impacted communities will always be the first responders and there are more neighbourhood groups and mutual aid networks being established across the continent every time we face another crisis—be it the pandemic or a flood, drought or a cut-off highway. Why is the establishment of such groups being left to local community volunteers? Where is the national coordination supporting this grassroots planning and preparation and connecting these efforts to other emergency services?
We need to resource training, planning, infrastructure and equipment. We need to fund our SES and firefighters, our local CFAs. We need psychologists and trauma counsellors. We need emergency food systems and mobile emergency telecommunications services. We need better resourced health services. We need emergency housing for the immediate aftermath of the crisis and in the long tail of recovery. And we need the resources for these services and equipment to be fairly and equally distributed.
We are going to need all of this and more year in and year out as we face the ongoing and increasingly devastating impacts of the climate emergency. It is going to cost an enormous amount of money.
We know exactly which companies have enormous amounts of money. It is those that are responsible for global heating and those that have done everything to suppress the science and undermine climate action. We know that all profit on this continent comes from stolen land, stolen labour and much of this has been supercharged by the extractive industries.
Now we need to make them pay for the damage they have done.