Who should pay the costs for climate-change-related disasters?

By Jason Mark

THE FLAMES moved with a speed that no one had thought possible.

It was a Sunday night, about 10:30 P.M., and Brad Sherwood was asleep when the sound of the dog scratching at the back door woke him. He got out of bed and went to let the dog out. When he opened the door, he caught the scent of woodsmoke—not all that unusual for Larkfield Estates, a Santa Rosa, California, subdivision where many of the 1960s-era ranchettes had fireplaces. Then he noticed the ash falling onto the pool.

Brad checked his iPhone for fire alerts. There was nothing, just a few Facebook posts about a wildfire near Calistoga, more than 30 miles away. He went back inside, gently woke his wife, Brandy, and told her that he was going to head up Mark West Road to see where the smoke was coming from.

“OK, whatever,” Brandy said. But she remembers thinking, as she fell back asleep, Something is wrong.

Brad drove up the twisting, two-lane road into the oak-dotted hillsides of the Mayacamas Mountains, which separate the Santa Rosa suburbs from Napa Valley. On the way, he passed a few fire engines, including crews from distant places like Bodega Bay and Gold Ridge. What the hell’s Bodega Bay Fire doing all the way over here? he wondered. There was still no sign of flames, just the smoke moving on the winds. After about 10 miles, he decided to turn around.

By the time Brad got back to his neighborhood, the Sonoma County sheriffs had closed off the road; they were evacuating families from the hills, they told him. Brad went home. He was standing in his driveway when he saw one of his neighbors, a deputy sheriff, talking to another neighbor, Sherry. The sheriff got in his car, flashed on his lights, and tore off. Brad jogged over to Sherry’s place and asked what she had heard.

“Get out,” she said. “The fire’s coming.”

Brad called Brandy. “Get the kids ready. We need to go.”

He and Sherry went door to door, warning their neighbors, while Brandy woke up the kids—Grant, seven, and June, five—and told them they had to leave. Grant helped his little sister get her shoes on while Brandy grabbed the emergency go-bags plus five boxes of family keepsakes and staged them all near the front door. Then they corralled all the pets: the dog, two Himalayan cats, four parakeets. Brad let the two backyard chickens go free into the night.

The kids were standing at the door in their pajamas when the electricity blinked out and the house went dark. Oh my God, Brandy thought, this is really happening.

Brad drove his Jeep onto the front lawn and backed it toward the family’s front door, then did the same with the minivan. The family started tossing everything into the cars. Across the street, Beverly, their 83-year-old neighbor, was calling for help. With the power out, she couldn’t figure out how to open her garage door. Brad sprinted across the street to open the door for her.

By now, everyone could see the fire. To the east, the whole hillside was a dark-orange glow moving toward them. Blazing embers swept through the air.

Brad, an employee of the Sonoma County Water Agency, made straight for the county emergency-operations center. He saw flames jump over the six lanes of Highway 101 near the Kmart. He saw the fire torch the hillside neighborhood of Fountaingrove.

As they had prearranged in the family emergency plan, Brandy drove separately with the kids toward her parents’ home in Sacramento. She didn’t get far. They were heading eastward when another huge fire seemingly came out of nowhere. She called Brad. “The whole freeway is on fire,” she said.

Brandy flipped a U-turn. In the back of the van, the dog was throwing up. The kids were in a panic. She drove all the way to San Francisco and eventually on to Sacramento.

By the next morning, Larkfield Estates was gone.

Flames consume the Signorello Vinyards in Napa, California, in 2017.Flames consume the Signorello Vinyards in Napa, California, in 2017. | Photo by Noah Berger


Santa Rosa, October 2017 | Photo by Reuters/Dronebase 

Brad went back to the site of their home as soon as the emergency workers began letting residents return. But he and Brandy waited a couple of weeks before they took the kids.

Nothing was left except for the chimney and the broad brick staircase leading to where the front door had been. The pool was an inky black oval filled with ash and trash. The front yard’s big old walnut tree—a neighborhood totem for generations of local kids—stood blackened and burned.

There were no tears. Grant, an aspiring archaeologist, asked to pick through the wreckage to see if he could find his rock collection. June stood back near the minivan, silent, reluctant to approach the remains of the house.

Finally, she said, “The fire took it all.”

***

TWO DAYS BEFORE the Sherwood children visited the remains of their house for the first time, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report stating that during the past decade, the government had spent more than $350 billion in response to climate-change-related extreme weather events. “Climate change impacts are already costing the federal government money,” the report said, “and these costs will likely increase over time.”

That’s an understatement. In 2017, extraordinary wildfires, floods, and storms pummeled large sections of the United States and led to never-before-seen destruction. The complex of fires that torched California’s Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties in October caused more than $10 billion in damages, making them the most expensive wildfires in U.S. history. At least 44 people lost their lives during the firestorm. The surreal Christmas-season fires near Santa Barbara led to another $2.5 billion in destroyed property. In August and September, widespread flooding during Hurricane Harvey caused at least $125 billion in damages in the greater Houston area and contributed to 93 deaths. Hurricane Irma damaged $50 billion worth of property in Florida, while Hurricane Maria’s September scouring of Puerto Rico caused another $90 billion in damages. At least 60 people in Puerto Rico died as a direct result of the storm; as many as 1,000 lives may have been lost due to the long-running electricity blackout on the island. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the most expensive year for natural disasters in U.S. history, costing a total of $306 billion.

The mounting price tag of extreme weather events and the prospect of greater destruction to come have brought into focus a question that has been lurking at the edges of climate change conversations: Who should pay the costs of the death and destruction caused by human-driven global warming?

The debate over climate accountability is not new. In the late 1980s, when climatologists were still trying to determine the magnitude of the risks from industrial greenhouse gas emissions, academics and policy specialists began calling attention to the fact that the alteration of the planet’s atmosphere would lead to unequal harms, and that basic principles of fairness would require that those harms be compensated. The issue of “loss and damage” entered into the formal United Nations–sponsored climate negotiations in 2007, when the Bali Action Plan suggested that wealthy nations take (unspecified) steps to assist “particularly vulnerable” countries. The Bali Action Plan established the idea—at least in theory—that the rich countries that have built their wealth by burning fossil fuels should help the poorer nations that are suffering disproportionate harms from a distorted atmosphere.

“Climate change reparations” is the shorthand for this claim—reparations meaning, basically, “a rectification of past and ongoing harms.” A plainer word would be justice. But justice is elusive, difficult to calculate, and often impossible to enforce. The notion of climate reparations, also referred to as “climate restitution,” has proved radioactive within international climate change talks, as richer nations resist acknowledging the responsibilities they may hold.

The mounting price tag of extreme weather events and the prospect of greater destruction to come have brought into focus a question that has been lurking at the edges of climate change conversations: Who should pay the costs of the death and destruction caused by human-driven global warming?

Like other attempts to remedy historical wrongs (the claim that African Americans should receive compensation for the plunder of slavery is probably the best known), a viable approach to climate reparations has been bedeviled by the immensity of the injustices involved. “Just as the problems of climate change overwhelm our cognitive and [emotional] systems . . . they also swamp the machinery of morality,” Dale Jamieson, a philosopher of environmental ethics, has written.

Part of the problem is time—the weird weather we are experiencing now is the result of emissions from decades ago. Even if we stopped all emissions today, climate change would persist for generations. Simply put, many of the perpetrators are dead, and the majority of those who will suffer most aren’t yet born. Then there’s the issue of space—the way in which a transatlantic flight from New York to London contributes, in some small measure, to record-breaking temperatures in Australia or a drought in the Amazon. So much distance lies between causes and effects that it’s hard to locate blame. Finally, there’s the complication of scope—we are all, each of us, complicit every time we fire up the car’s engine or jet off to a faraway place.

How can any individual, any set of people, or even any nation be held accountable for so vast a problem? Is it really fair, for example, to ask a poor family in New Orleans to compensate a rich family in Bangladesh for the harm done by rising sea levels?

The idea of climate reparations seems to lead to an ethical stalemate.

 

THESE ETHICAL DILEMMAS are beginning to disentangle as the impacts of climate change become immediate. Climate change is no longer a far-off threat to be suffered by future generations. It is happening here and now, the destruction in real time.

Meanwhile, new research is tightening the chain of causality between fossil fuel consumption and extreme weather disasters. After Superstorm Sandy walloped New York City in 2012, many people were careful not to attribute the storm’s strength to human actions. That uncertainty is evaporating under the glare of a hot new sky. Climatologists report that record-breaking heat and strong winds intensified the disastrous 2017 Northern California wildfires. A few weeks before, San Francisco had posted an unprecedented September high of 106°F. On the first night of the fires, the Diablo winds were clocked at a hurricane-force 79 miles per hour. The record rainfall during Hurricane Harvey (one Texas community measured 51 inches) was three times more likely to occur than it would have been during a storm a century earlier. In December, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society issued a first-ever report linking extreme weather events to climate change.

This contraction of cause and effect is sharpening the lines of accountability, which now squarely point toward those actors who well understood the threat long before the rest of us. It’s a myth that we’re all equally liable for the disaster of climate change. There is one group that, through its actions as well as its inaction, has perpetuated one of the greatest crimes in the history of civilization: the knowing destruction of Earth’s essential life system.

The campaign for climate restitution focuses on what the academic literature sometimes refers to as the “carbon majors”—those corporate conglomerates that have amassed colossal fortunes through the discovery, extraction, refining, marketing, and sale of fossil fuel energy. These companies span the globe, their networks of wellheads and pipelines and refineries stretching across continents and beneath the seas. Measured by revenue and size of workforce, they are larger than many governments.

The term “carbon majors,” however, is too polite. It elides the feudal logic of these companies’ business models and the raw power of their political dominance. It doesn’t capture these corporations’ immense sense of privilege, the audacity of their assertion that the rest of us—families, communities, taxpayers—should cover all the costs of their recklessness. Better to give them a more accurate name: the Carbon Barons.

***

NO ONE EXCEPT for the oldest people in Adjuntas could remember such a storm.

Yesenia Ramos Cintron and her family spent months in a shelter while waiting for assistance from FEMA after Hurricane Maria.Yesenia Ramos Cintrón and her family lived in a shelter while waiting for assistance from FEMA. | Photo by Joa Rodríguez

As Hurricane Maria tore through the mountains of Puerto Rico, Yesenia Ramos Cintrón was glad that she had moved her whole family to her mother-in-law’s house. Their home had made it through Hurricane Irma the week before without any serious damage—just a few small leaks in the roof. But everyone had said that this storm was going to be much worse, so Yesenia had packed up everything she could: Luis Yade’s PlayStation, all of Nilkaely’s favorite toys and clothes, the baby things for Dylan Yael, plus her laptop, the kids’ tablet, and the family’s important documents, including the diplomas for the nursing degrees she had just completed. When the storm began to hammer down, it seemed like leaving had been a good idea. The hurricane sounded like there was a volcano outside.

Once the storm cleared, Yesenia and her husband, Eduardo, went back to their house to see how it had fared. The home they had inherited from her father 13 years ago was destroyed. The hurricane had lifted the roof clear off and smashed everything inside.

Staying at her mother-in-law’s two-bedroom house wasn’t an option. It was crowded and uncomfortable, what with her sister-in-law already living there and Yesenia with three kids. She decided to take the family to the government shelter that had opened at the high school up the hill from the Burger King. It wouldn’t be so bad, she figured. They wouldn’t be there long.

The kids didn’t seem too bothered by living in the shelter. She had salvaged all of their favorite things, which made it feel a bit like home: Nilkaely’s stuffed animals and her yellow Pooh Bear sheets, now stretched over a cot, and many of Luis’s things. Dylan was only a baby, just five months old, and he didn’t know any better.

Hurricane Maria's scouring of Puerto Rico left thousands of people homeless.Hurricane Maria’s scouring of Puerto Rico left thousands of people homeless. | Photo by Steph Segarra

But for Yesenia, being in the shelter felt like a heavy weight. It was the worst: 21 people all living in a single classroom! No privacy, no place to cook. Just four showers for everyone, and only with cold water. She felt bad when Dylan got sick and cried and kept people awake. But what could she do? He was just a baby. There were all kinds of people there, some from different backgrounds than she and her children were used to. One old man stayed up all night drinking. The shelter finally kicked him out.

Yesenia had always thought of herself as a strong person who found courage under pressure, but many days she felt depressed. Sometimes, when the kids weren’t around, she would cry. But at least they were all alive. And some good things had come out of the storm. With all of the road closures, she had quit her job at the senior home in Manati. Then that state senator who had visited the shelter had tried to help find her a new job in Ponce, which would be much closer.

The only thing that made her mad was FEMA. She had filled out all of the paperwork for storm-damage compensation, and an inspector had even come by to look at the house. Then she was told that her application had been sent to the fraud investigation unit. On one form, someone had spelled her name with a J instead of a Y. The name didn’t match her social security number. “Who wrote J?” the FEMA people asked her. She didn’t know. “How long will the fraud investigation last?” she asked. Four months, they said.

Four months!

“I am living in a refugio, a refuge,” she told the people on the phone. But her English was no good, and they didn’t understand. “A chel-ter,” she said. “I am living in a chel-ter. With a ba-by.” She asked to speak with someone who understood Spanish. They said they didn’t have anyone who spoke Spanish.

Weeks turned into a month. One month turned into two months. Dylan turned seven months old in the shelter. Thanksgiving and Christmas were about to arrive, and things had gotten bad with Eduardo, who hated being stuck there. They were arguing all the time. Many nights he slept at his mother’s house.

The government said that she could move into one of Adjuntas’s public housing complexes on the edge of town. But she couldn’t take her family to that kind of place. She feared there would be drugs and prostitutes there.

Every day she wondered, “What am I going to do?” For so many years she had worked hard. She had done everything she could to raise up her family. And now this. It felt like, because of the hurricane, she had taken three steps backward in life.

***

ON JANUARY 10, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference to announce that the largest city in the United States was moving to divest its holdings in fossil fuel corporations and was filing a lawsuit against five Carbon Barons—ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell—seeking to recover damages from Hurricane Sandy as well as the costs for sea level rise adaptation.

“For decades, Big Oil ravaged the environment, and Big Oil copied Big Tobacco,” the mayor said. “They used a classic cynical playbook. They denied and denied and denied that their product was lethal. Meanwhile, they spent a lot of time hooking society on that lethal product. . . . It’s time for them to start paying for the damage they’ve done.”

A reckoning must be made. After all, we are not merely consumers seeking compensation for a product defect. We are citizens insisting that impunity is unacceptable in a republic governed by the rule of law.

The New York suit made the city the eighth local government in the country seeking to hold the Carbon Barons legally accountable for climate change damages. In 2017, seven California communities—the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz, and Imperial Beach, along with Marin, San Mateo, and Santa Cruz Counties—filed similar complaints against those five oil giants as well as more than 20 other coal-and-oil-services corporations. Following the more polite standards of Canadian politics, five towns and cities in British Columbia have sent letters to 20 Carbon Barons asking them to begin paying some of the costs connected to global warming. “In my opinion, the companies that have profited greatly off of the destruction of our planet and the coming climate catastrophe should be at the table to pay,” a Victoria city councilor said.

These are not the first attempts to hold fossil fuel corporations responsible for losses and damages related to industrial greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, residents of Mississippi sued an offshore-drilling company, Murphy Oil, under state law, claiming that by fueling climate change the corporation had exacerbated Hurricane Katrina. But the case was thrown into judicial limbo after a majority of the judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recused themselves, presumably because they had conflicts of interest with the oil and gas industry. In 2008, the residents of the Alaska Native village of Kivalina filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking compensation from ExxonMobil and other oil companies for the flooding in their coastal town. A district court judge dismissed the case, and the court of appeals upheld that decision, ruling that the Clean Air Act displaced federal common-law claims seeking damages for injuries resulting from greenhouse gas emissions.

The new climate restitution lawsuits enjoy advantages their predecessors didn’t. Although the lawsuits are ambitious in their goals, they are relatively modest in their tactics. The municipal and county lawsuits rest on middle-of-the-road tort law surrounding product liability and the “polluter pays” principle. The lawsuits claim that the Carbon Barons caused public and private nuisances when they failed to disclose the inherent dangers of fossil fuel combustion, dangers that they themselves have been aware of for decades. The opening line of the New York City complaint reads, “This lawsuit is based upon the fundamental principle that a corporation that makes a product causing severe harm when used exactly as intended should shoulder the costs of abating that harm.”

Mayor de Blasio’s comparison between his city’s lawsuit and the historic campaign to hold cigarette manufacturers liable for their decades of deception is an often-used analogy, and it’s spot-on. Like the 1990s-era suits filed by state attorneys general against Big Tobacco, the new cases against the Carbon Barons are taking advantage of recent scientific findings and fresh revelations regarding what the defendants knew and when they knew it.

Recent research has provided attorneys with the ability to draw a direct line from fossil fuel business operations to rising temperatures to consequences such as higher sea levels. In the Kivalina case, the district court judge observed that it would be difficult to determine any one company’s contribution to climate change harms. Since then, a 2013 peer-reviewed paper by Richard Heede, published in the journal Climatic Change, showed that it is possible to do this. Heede’s research concluded that the 20 largest investor-owned Carbon Barons have, over roughly the last 150 years, extracted a volume of fossil fuels large enough to produce nearly 30 percent of global emissions. The oil and gas extracted by the five companies named in the New York suit resulted in 181 gigatons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere during the previous century and a half—or 12.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gases. Subsequent peer-reviewed research by Heede and collaborators has concluded that the collective business practices of some 90 fossil fuel corporations have driven nearly two-thirds of the observed increases in global surface temperatures. Although it can feel as if the invisible hand of the marketplace is driving global climate change, the Carbon Barons’ fingerprints are unmistakable.

Most damning are the recent revelations that, for nearly 40 years, the leaders of these companies have been aware that their products were emitting dangerous greenhouse gases. A series of exposes published in 2015 by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News showed that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the oil companies’ own in-house scientists had confirmed that CO2 from oil products was contributing to the greenhouse effect. As early as 1977, scientists at Exxon warned the company that the “use of fossil fuels . . . should not be encouraged” because of the risk they posed. In a 1980 presentation to members of the American Petroleum Institute (API), a scientist warned that a global temperature rise of 2.5°C would likely have “major economic consequences” and that further rises would likely produce “globally catastrophic effects.” A year later, a director in Exxon’s research unit warned that the CO2 emissions modeled in the company’s 50-year planning documents “will later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).” There’s the smoking gun, in the form of an engineer’s memo.

Yet instead of sharing their findings with the government and the public (that is, their customers), the Carbon Barons began a well-orchestrated and well-documented campaign of deception. Either individually or through associations like the API, they gave money to think tanks, individual researchers, and advertising firms to socially engineer an atmosphere of uncertainty around climate science. Some of the recipients of this largesse, such as the George C. Marshall Institute, had honed their strategies of deceit years earlier while on the payroll of tobacco companies. A 1998 memo circulated among API members declared that “victory will be achieved when . . . average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) the uncertainties in climate science.” That was six years after the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted, based on scientists’ certainty that human activities were changing the atmosphere. In 2000, ExxonMobil paid for a series of advertisements on the New York Times‘s op-ed page with the headline “Unsettled Science.” One ad declared, “Scientists remain unable to confirm” the hypothesis that “humans are causing global warming.”

For the Carbon Barons, everything went according to plan. Between 2006 and 2016, the percentage of Americans who believed that humans were responsible for global warming went down, even as scientists’ certainty in their warnings increased. In the last 20 years, ExxonMobil has routinely broken U.S. records for corporate earnings. In 2014, the company posted its biggest annual profit ever: $32.5 billion.

 

NONE OF THIS IS ANCIENT HISTORY. The Carbon Barons’ offenses have occurred within our lifetimes—within, in fact, the space of a single generation. Longtime NASA climatologist James Hansen gave his famous congressional testimony warning about the dangers of climate change 30 years ago, in the summer of 1988. By 1988, the Carbon Barons understood that global warming could be, in their own words, “catastrophic.” Yet it was around that same time that they launched their disinformation campaign. The year 1988 provides another baseline: More than half of all industrial CO2 emissions have occurred since then.

Case closed? Not exactly. The Carbon Barons have no intention of conceding. Two days before the New York City lawsuit was made public, ExxonMobil filed a petition in Texas state court seeking to depose various lawyers and government officials from the California cities and counties that are suing the company. The petition claims that the local governments’ efforts amount to a conspiracy. The reigning Carbon Baron also argues—as it has in other legal defenses—that the lawsuits are an attempt to “suppress” the corporation’s constitutional right to free speech.

Perhaps. After all, the political realm is awfully accommodating when it comes to alternative theories of reality. But fraud is not considered protected speech. The Carbon Barons’ long-running deception is the First Amendment equivalent of yelling “There is no fire!” in a crowded theater filling with smoke. The Carbon Barons may also want to remember this: When speech moves into a courtroom, “alternative facts” are known by a specific term of art—they are called perjury.

***

THE RAIN was like nothing anyone had ever seen.

As Hurricane Harvey whipped toward Houston, the Saldivar brothers—Danny, Ric, and Sammy—made a plan. Their parents—Manuel and Belia, both in their 80s—were suffering from dementia, and the middle brother, Sammy, had been living with them since the previous January. Mom and Dad’s house had flooded during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, when the backyard bayou had busted its banks, and the brothers knew the house could flood again. If the waters got high, it would be better to be at Danny’s house. If the floods worsened, they would try to make it over to Ric’s.

Sammy watched the waters Saturday night as the rain poured down on southeast Texas, but eventually nodded off to sleep. When he woke sometime around 4 A.M., he could tell things were bad and he called Ric. “I fell asleep, and the water is already coming up,” he said. With the rain still hammering, Sammy got Mom and Dad out to his Chevy Sierra pickup, but it wouldn’t start. So he walked them down Lake Forest Boulevard until a stranger offered them a ride and dropped them off at Danny’s place.

Ric Saldivar, center, at the funeral for his parents. The pair drowned along with four great-grandchildren in a van during flooding from Hurricane Harvey in Houston, 2017.
Ric Saldivar, center, at the funeral for his parents. The pair drowned along with four great-grandchildren. | Photo by Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle/AP

Danny wasn’t there. Turned out he was stuck across town at one of his sons’ houses. Sammy put Mom and Dad’s clothes into the dryer and called both of his brothers. Ric told him, “If you’re going to get out of there, you have to leave right now. And you have to get Danny’s grandkids.”

Danny and his wife, Virginia, had been raising their grandchildren. Their son was in prison, and their daughter-in-law, who lived across the street, was often working. So their house had become a second home to Devy, Dominic, Xavier, and Daisy.

Devy had turned 16 that July, and the family had thrown her a big Sweet Sixteen party with a beautiful white dress. When she and the other kids came over after school, Devy would do the usual teen things: talk and text with friends, watch TV. Dominic, 14, would play video games. Sometimes he would practice his trombone, having landed a spot in the high school marching band. Xavier, nine, would climb around in the backyard or play with his action figures. Superman was his favorite. Daisy was the baby—six years old and fond of hanging out with her grandpa, whether that meant taking endless selfies on his phone or going along on his handyman jobs. People liked calling her “Daisy Donut” after the ladies at church noticed her sweet tooth. She liked calling people “silly goose.”

Sammy went across the street, got all the kids, and ran with them back to Danny’s house. Then all seven of them piled into Danny’s white Ford cargo van, the one Danny used for his handyman work and for ferrying karaoke and DJ equipment to church functions. Sammy, Mom, and Dad got into the front seat. The four kids got in the back, behind the black metal cage, and sat on the floor. With water filling the street, they headed out.

Ric had told Sammy that the freeway entrances had been closed, so Sammy took the surface streets. Everywhere they went, the water was deep. Sammy was driving east on Ley Road when he came to the bridge that crosses Greens Bayou. He had driven by there a million times, and normally it was calm. Now the water was high and wide and pulsing.

A flooded gas station in Texas after Hurricane Harvey
A flooded gas station in Texas after Hurricane Harvey | Photo by Julie Dermansky

Sammy didn’t want to cross, but Dad insisted, “It’s not that deep.” Manuel Saldivar was a loving father, but he was also tough, and as his dementia had deepened, he had gotten even tougher. As the Saldivar brothers used to say, “When Dad tells you to do something, you do it.” So Sammy hit the gas.

They made it across the bridge OK, water sloshing around the tires. But as they reached the far end of the bridge, the road dipped and the van hit deep water. Sammy had driven about 20 feet past the bridge when the van just stopped.

He told everyone to sit still and relax. If they got out, he said, the water was too high and the current too strong, and they would be washed away.

They waited. A long 10 minutes went by. Water began to seep through the doors and fill up the van. Mom and Dad’s feet were getting wet. Dad started laughing.

Then the van began to inch back toward the fast waters of the main current. The vehicle slid sideways. It hit mud and stopped at the side of the bridge. Water began gushing across the hood, and the van’s nose dipped down into the bayou. When water poured through the half-open driver’s-side window, some primal survival instinct kicked in, and Sammy slipped out of his seat belt and through the opening.

The current pushed his head underwater and drove him backward. He swam until he grabbed onto a tree branch. The van was upstream from him, and there was no way to reach it.

Sammy yelled for the kids to get out of the van.

The kids screamed that they couldn’t.

Then the screaming stopped and the van went silent. Sammy watched it go under.

He hung on in the water for nearly an hour, yelling for help. Finally someone from the trailer park on the other side of Greens Bayou heard his hollering and called the sheriff’s department. An emergency rescue crew arrived and pulled him from the water.

The funerals took place at Brookside Memorial. Belia and Manuel’s service was on the second Saturday in September, the one for Devy, Dominic, Xavier, and Daisy three days later. The caskets were closed. At the service for the children, there were three regular-size coffins and a small one for Daisy.

The Saldivar brothers are haunted by what happened. Christmas was hard. So was December 14, the day Daisy would have turned seven. When Danny is home alone in the afternoon, repairing his flood-damaged house, and he hears a sound near the front door, he turns around thinking it’s Daisy coming home from school. She used to fill up his days.

***

WHEN ASKED who, if anyone, should be held responsible for the suffering they have experienced, neither Brad nor Brandy Sherwood, nor Yesenia Ramos Cintrón, nor any of the Saldivar brothers offered the fossil fuel corporations as an answer. These were natural disasters, they said. They were acts of God, some of them believe.

Yet someone should be held accountable for these families’ loss and suffering. These extreme weather disasters are, at this point, as much unnatural as they are natural. Human forces are at work, the same forces that are now busy trying to avoid any responsibility for what they’ve wrought.

The Carbon Barons seek to perpetuate the myth that because we are each, in some tiny way, responsible for fueling climate change, no one should be held liable for any damage and destruction. In response to the raft of lawsuits, the CEO of BP, Bob Dudley, swatted away the Big Tobacco analogies. “People don’t need to smoke cigarettes, but they have needed energy for many decades,” he said. “If you’re asking me, can the legal system do something like that, I don’t know. But do I think it’s right? Absolutely not.” The day after the New York City lawsuit was filed, the New York Post‘s editorial page harrumphed, “Why should the oil companies pay? They’re not actually burning the fuel—that’s the world’s utilities, motorists, etc.”

The blithe dismissals from the Carbon Barons and their apologists are little more than sarcasm used to disguise fear. At some level, they know a reckoning is coming. And so they seek to dilute responsibility with every gallon of fuel they sell. Their claim of blamelessness is the hollow innocence of the drug dealer: The customers just wanted it.

This is not to say that the Carbon Barons alone should bear the costs of climate-change-related disasters and adaptation. There is no question that each of us, as individuals, carries some blame. A fair reading of history would conclude that the public at large has known about the dangers of our daily energy consumption at least since 1994, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change went into effect. Commonsense morality demands that we do what we can to reduce our individual emissions: take the train instead of the plane, go by bike rather than by car, forgo the steak in favor of the vegetarian option, have fewer children. If that sounds like sacrifice, it is. Such sacrifices could also be viewed as virtues—the old-fashioned values of temperance, frugality, and patience.

We cannot, however, reasonably expect moral behavior from the Carbon Barons, whose controlling ethic is meeting shareholder expectations. But at the very least we must demand that they be held accountable. For they, unlike us, are uniquely culpable.

The Carbon Barons are guilty not only of fraud but also of reckless negligence, of failing to use their early knowledge about climate change risks to shift the direction of human affairs. You can decide not to indulge in luxury emissions like a trip to Europe, but such abstinence will do almost nothing to reduce global warming. The Carbon Barons are in a different position. When they learned that their products could be catastrophic, they had the ability to intervene in the course of history. They possessed the scientific awareness, the economic might, and the political influence to have avoided climate chaos.

And they chose not to.

 

THE LAW IS AN IMPERFECT extension of ethics. Tort law alone isn’t going to save the planet. Even if, after years of litigation, the pending cases succeed, the question of climate restitution may well be too large for the courtroom, the damages too vast for any single judge or jury to decide. This century will witness trillions of dollars of infrastructure and wealth destroyed in the course of unnatural disasters. Millions of human lives may be lost in heat waves, droughts, fires, and floods. Beyond the losses for human civilization, there are the damages to wild nature—the altered forests and the acidic seas. Is any settlement large enough to remedy the extinction of a species? One stumbles in trying to make such a reckoning.

Yet a reckoning must be made. While the courts are, for now, the best and most likely venue for achieving some amends, climate justice is ultimately a political problem. After all, we are not merely consumers seeking compensation for a product defect. We are citizens insisting that impunity is unacceptable in a republic governed by the rule of law. The demand for climate change reparations—that is to say, some redress for climate change’s recent past, present, and likely future damages—is the base minimum required for any accounting of a crime as insidious as the profit-driven alteration of Earth’s atmosphere.

The urgency of this attempt cannot be overstated. This effort to apportion responsibility is in a race against time and the implacable physics of Earth’s vast systems. The longer the Carbon Barons are able to delay justice, the sooner a worse judgment will come for all of us, the innocent as well as the guilty.

This article appeared in the May/June 2018 edition with the headline “The Case for Climate Reparations.”

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