Friends of the Earth Considers Legal Action to Curb Global Warming

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 15, 2000 (ENS) - Parallel to the landmark lawsuits that have forced change upon the tobacco industry, one of the world's largest environmental groups today announced it may take legal action against industrialized countries and private industries that attempt to block the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.


Brent Blackwelder, president Friends of the Earth, USA (Photo courtesy Friends of the Earth)
Today's announcement came as Friends of the Earth International (FoEI), unveiled a new report that details the tangible human costs of severe weather events that the group links to global warming.

"Some environmentalists - Friends of the Earth included - are looking at the possible legal liabilities that may accrue to those responsible for climate change," Tony Juniper, policy and campaigns director at Friends of the Earth UK, told reporters in Washington, DC.

"People are suffering real consequences as a result of industrial activity. Many environmentalists are looking at the means we might have to bring legal actions against fossil fuel companies and industrialized nations that are blocking action on the treaty, which could solve the problem," he said.

The Kyoto Protocol is an addition to the United Nations climate change treaty which would compel the United States and 38 other industrialized countries to reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases. While target limits vary by country, the overall reduction averages five percent during the period 2008 to 2012.


Cemet works, Croxton, Lincolnshire, England (Photo courtesy
The protocol has been criticized by the petroleum, coal, and automobile and manufacturing industries which emit a high percentage of the heat trapping greenhouse gases as they burn coal, oil and gasoline.

While some elected officials in industrialized countries, particularly in Europe, strongly support the Kyoto Protocol, others have also spoken out strongly against the treaty, warning that its strict emissions regulations would wreck modern economies.

The United States has signed the protocol, but the Republican controlled Senate, which must ratify all international treaties, has declined to consider the Kyoto Protocol. None of the countries governed by the protocol have ratified it as yet.

Juniper said that when he broached the subject of a global warming damage lawsuit at a recent conference hosted by the British Petroleum (BP) corporation, BP attorneys responded in a manner reminiscent of the tobacco industry executives who testified to the U.S. Congress that they believed that tobacco was not addictive.

The BP attorneys "said that climate change hasn't been proven," Juniper told reporters. "That for me was a very strong signal that we're on the right track."

FoEI will undertake a two year scoping study to determine if it will proceed with a lawsuit designed to recoup financial damages caused by global warming, Juniper said.

FoEI officials from El Salvador and Nigeria were on hand in Washington on today to add their personal observations to the report, which is titled," Gathering Storm: The Human Cost of Climate Change."

"For us, global climate change is not only a scientific phenomenon," said FoEI chairman Ricardo Navarro, a native of El Salvador. "For people in the south, climate change means a lot of suffering, a lot of cost to human lives."

Navarro recalled Hurricane Mitch, which hit the Caribbean in November 1998. The storm killed some 10,000 people in floods and mud slides, and injured tens of thousands more. He spoke about the floods in Venezuela last year which killed some 25,000 people.


Hurricane Mitch caused disastrous flooding in Honduras (Photo courtesy
Navarro blames the disasters on global warming, caused by human activity. "Some people enjoy the benefits of fuel consumption, and some people suffer the consequences," he said. "All the damage is on the people who are vulnerable - the people who are poor. This is a very high level of injustice."

Godwin Ojo, a FoEI member from Nigeria said, "We want to emphasize that climate change is real, and lives with us." He recounted unprecedented flooding in the African country of Mozambique this past February. More than 100,000 people fled their homes, drinking water supplies failed and, the risk of malaria and cholera epidemics threatened a major public health crisis.

Ojo said that global warming profiteers should held legally accountable. "We believe that industrialized nations need to cut down on their emissions drastically," Ojo said. The issues involve life, livelihood and liability, he said. "If the industrialized nations continue with their current trend ... there will be people and countries that will be held accountable for the loss of life and the loss of livelihood that is taking place in poorer nations."

Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth U.S., said the United States is the country most responsible for delaying effective international action to tackle the global warming crisis.

"The U.S. Congress needs to wake up to the fact that climate change is real and that action needs to be taken now," Blackwelder said. "If we fail to dramatically lower fossil fuel emissions, we are sure to see more horrific weather events like those reported in "Gathering Storm.""

Blackwelder noted that according to a 1998 Commerce Department report, weather related catastrophes cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

"This is an unbelievable and absolutely staggering figure," Blackwelder said. "Yet these very members of the Senate and House who are blocking the (Kyoto) agreement talk about 'family values.' But they fail to live up to their moral responsibility, because the preponderance of evidence suggests that our wasteful profligate energy use is actually devastating families and communities throughout the world."

Reaching agreement in November during the Sixth Conference of Parties to the UN climate change treaty (COP-6) will not be easy. U.S. chief climate negotiator, the State Department's under secretary for global affairs Frank Loy, explained the current U.S. position to a meeting of the American Bar Association July 20 in London.

"Perhaps one of the most contentious philosophical differences in the negotiations is between the European Union and the Umbrella Group, a pairing of like minded countries that includes Japan, Russia, Canada, Norway, Australia and the United States," Loy said.


U.S. Under Secretary for Global Affairs Frank Loy makes a point during climate change negotiations. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
At its core, the difference is between the European Union which favors accomplishing most greenhouse gas emissions cuts within the countries producing those emissions, and the Umbrella Group which wants no limits placed on their ability to build projects in developing countries that count as emissions credits at home.

"We believe," Loy said, "that if it is allowed to function effectively, the market, rather than governments, will determine the right investments in new technologies. We reject the notion that tackling climate change should be unreasonably painful."

Juniper, the UK's Friends of the Earth spokesman said today, "It is vitally important that the governments of the world - especially the United States government - go to The Hague in November with the intention of negotiating a treaty that will lead to emissions reductions, rather than blaming other people and pointing falsely to the economic dangers involved."

The FoEI report calls for industrialized countries to achieve 80 percent of their Kyoto objective through emissions reductions within their own borders. That has been a major sticking point for the United States and the Umbrella Group, which have sought to meet emissions through emissions trading and other development and market mechanisms detailed in the protocol.

Loy said the European Union is coming around to the market approach. "The idea of emissions trading is growing in popularity in capitals on the continent, and also in London and Brussels," he said. "Economists are warning that few countries, with the notable exception of the United Kingdom, are on track to meet their Kyoto commitments. I am hopeful that these forces will allow governments at COP-6 to mold the Protocol into a sensible, practical shape, one which the United States can support."


California's Sacramento Municipal Utility District installed this 210-kilowatt solar system. It feeds solar energy to the grid, eliminating the need for burning an equivalent amount of fossil fuel. (Photo courtesy Sacramento Municipal Utility District)
Loy said that U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is growing more likely. "The coalition in the United States supporting strong action on climate change is growing stronger every day," he said. "Second, the United States is already taking major steps to reduce its emissions. Third, we still have a real opportunity to address the legitimate concerns of the U.S. Senate in a manner that will make U.S. ratification possible."

Lawyers will have an important role to play as greenhouse gas emissions limits are ratified, Loy told the American Bar Association gathering, but he was not referring to litigation of the type Friends of the Earth is considering. Instead, Loy said, lawyers will advise corporations how manage emissions and assess risks.

"Consider a client with a potential investment project, such as a copper mine in a forested area or a new electricity generating plant. Your clients will need advice about whether they are eligible to sell emission credits if they manage the forest above the copper mine to sequester carbon or if they choose to generate electricity from climate friendly natural gas instead of coal," Loy said.

In Washington today, FOEI's Juniper warned that the economies of the world will suffer if global warming is not curbed. "There's been a four fold increase in insurance payouts due to extreme weather events by the global insurance industry over the last few decades, Juniper said. And evidence collected by companies ... shows that the effects of climate change are starting to bear down on the financial community."

But Juniper estimates that a great number of jobs will be created by companies creating new products and services to address climate change problems. "In the UK, it has been calculated that the implementation of the government's 20 percent CO2 reduction target ... could lead to a net increase of about a quarter of a million new jobs in Britain, in the public transport, renewable energy, and energy efficiency sectors," Juniper said.

In the final analysis, the world is watching to see how the United States will handle the challenges of the Kyoto Protocol, and that will be decided by who is elected in November.

"Environmentalists across the world are looking very closely at the U.S. Presidential elections, and waiting to see which of these people who enters the White House is going to deliver the world from catastrophe," Juniper said. "The implications of this election really are that serious, in terms of what will happen on the global stage."