Are those 100 companies also responsible for 71% of our modern life?

Back in June of 2012, two dozen of the nation’s leading climate activists, trial lawyers and PR experts met for a two-day conference in La Jolla, CA to try to solve a big PR problem: the lack of “a compelling public narrative about climate change in the United States.”

The solution? They would “use the lessons from tobacco-related education, laws, and litigation to address climate change,” according to a self-published account of the conference.

“We held tobacco companies responsible for lying about cancer,” said conference attendee and noted tobacco litigator Sharon Eubanks, “Let’s do the same for oil companies and climate change.”

Unfortunately for all involved, oil and natural gas are not tobacco. And, as Stanton Glantz, the nation’s leading anti-tobacco activist and one of the conferees, pointed out, “The fact is, we do need some form of energy,” and it “seems unlikely [that] alternative energy forms can replace the current carbon producers.”

But that didn’t stop the intrepid activists from working with several states attorneys general on an as-yet fruitless and ever-changing tobacco-style RICO snipe hunt.

Nor did it stop them from supporting an initiative “to publicly attribute important changes in climate, such as sea level rise, to specific carbon producers.” The goal of this name-and-blame initiative was to identify “what the ‘cancer’ analog for global warming might be,” and then pin it on individual oil and natural gas producers.

When I talk to my students I always say, tobacco causes lung cancer, esophageal cancer, mouth cancer … My question is: What is the ‘cancer’ of climate change that we need to focus on?
— Conference Co-organizer Naomi Oreskes

Central to this plan was a research project conducted by Richard Heede, head of the Climate Accountability Institute and co-organizer of the La Jolla conference, that purported to quantify “the annual and cumulative global warming emissions attributable to each of the world’s major carbon producers.”

Apparently, by reviewing annual reports and “other public sources of information from the energy sector,” Heede claimed he could “derive the proportion of the planet’s atmospheric carbon load that is traceable to the fossil fuels produced and marketed by each of these companies annually from 1864 to 2010.” 

This week, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), in partnership with Heede, released the final version of that research project which they claim shows that “100 fossil fuel producers are linked to 71% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.”

While CDP said the report is “aimed at investors wishing to better understand the amount of carbon associated with their fossil fuel holdings,” it’s important to understand that the activists have also threatened to use this database in future lawsuits against individual oil and natural gas companies.

As Politico reported, the La Jolla conferees “underscored the importance of building a catalogue of peer-reviewed research making the case that individual corporations could be held responsible for their contributions to climate change, a step that could serve as Exhibit A in future legal action.” (Emphasis added.) 

According to the La Jolla report, trial lawyer and conference attendee, Matt Pawa, said Heede’s information “could prove quite useful in helping to establish joint and several liability in tort cases.” He said this kind of accounting “would no doubt inspire more litigation that could have a powerful effect in beginning to change corporate behavior.”

All of which raises an important question: If 100 companies truly are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions, can we assume that they are also responsible for providing the vast majority of the petrochemical building blocks that make our modern lives possible? Just a thought.