Who Is Legally Responsible for Climate Change Impacts (and avoiding them)?


International Climate Change Liability: A Myth or a Reality?  (Jennifer Kilinski, 42 page pdf, J. of Transnational Law & Policy, Spring 2009)

Also discussed here: Office of the Auditor General 2012 Annual Report (City of Ottawa, Nov. 28, 2013)

And here: The Alaskan village set to disappear under water in a decade (Stephen Sackur, HardTalk, BBC News Magazine, Jul. 29, 2013)

And here: The Moral and Criminal Case Against Canada’s Climate Negligence (William Rees, Dec. 7, 2013)

Today we review the liability of companies which emit greenhouse gases for losses caused by anthropogenic climate change.  Several suits have been raised in the last 5 years by plaintiffs that have suffered significant impacts against the main emitters of carbon pollution which in the USA is the electrical generation industry which is responsible for 25% of that nation’s emissions.

While these suits concern flooding from sea level rise of Arctic islands, such as Kivalina, Alaska, the Auditor General for the City of Ottawa found that “Lack of a systematic and comprehensive climate change adaptation plan may result in impairment to municipal infrastructure and services due to extreme weather resulting from climate change. This could then result in potential legal action due to sustained property damage”. This liability was linked to the provincial Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act requires an emergency preparedness plan be in place.

Taking this thinking a step further,  most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions originate in cities and one of the principal GHG emitters is the transportation sector and private vehicles n particular which are owned and driven by around 70% of the city’s population. Those most affected by air pollution from these vehicles are too young or too old to drive. Just as the Inuit on a small Alaskan island are among the lowest emitters of GHGs and suffer the most from climate change, the same logic applies to the young and elderly in cities who conceivably could launch a valid class action against those responsible for vehicle emissions for both health impacts, accentuated by climate change, and for damage to property and infrastructure as the Auditor General found. The Court found in the Kivalina case that regulation of greenhouse gases was a political rather than a legal issue and one would look for accountability at that level.

However,  the failure of the City of Ottawa to prepare a plan of action to protect and adapt to climate change appears to provide a potential legal recourse for those suffering losses, whether they be structural or health. In addition, cities have a dominant role and mandate in regulating traffic, congestion and roads, as well as the ability to price use of these, which in turn gives cities the ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and the liability that goes with this responsibility. How long will it take those who are impacted to sue the city and vehicle owners for damages?

English: Aerial view of Kivalina, Alaska, USA....

English: Aerial view of Kivalina, Alaska, USA. View is to the southeast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To see Key Quotes and Links to key reports about this post, click HERE

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