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The tide turns for fossil fuel companies: public opinion begins to hold them responsible for climate change

How does the UK public feel about the impacts of climate change in the UK and around the world, and who do they believe is responsible for paying for the damage caused?

A  recent poll in the UK shows that two thirds of people are concerned about extreme weather and other impacts brought about by climate change and 70% believe fossil fuel companies should be help to pay for the costs of extreme weather events. Polls carried out in Australia show similar public sentiment. 

For philanthropy, why does public opinion on climate change responsibility matter?

There is rising evidence of the costs associated with climate change – the Environment Agency estimates the 2015-16 floods cost the economy about £1.6bn in England alone. As it stands, the bill for these costs will ultimately be funded by the public, sometimes through taxes or insurance premiums with the poorest and uninsured people in society predicted to suffer the worst losses. A review carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found ‘lower-income and other disadvantaged groups contribute least to causing climate change but are likely to be most negatively affected by it; they pay, as a proportion of income, the most towards implementing certain policy responses and benefit least from those policies; and their voices tend to go unheard in decision making’.

To reduce the disproportionate burden of climate change on the world’s poorest, the transition to a low carbon economy must be fast. Alongside market development, technological advances and political action, climate change litigation can trigger rapid carbon reduction and at the same time, reduce fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate.

Climate change litigation tactics include human rights arguments, air pollution breaches and new fossil fuel extraction.  This year alone, regular headlines have been made as thirteen counties and cities in Washington, New York, Colorado and California sue oil majors and other fossil fuel companies for knowingly causing climate change, and claiming damages for the effects of climate change on citizens. Friends of the Earth are preparing a similar lawsuit against Shell in the Netherlands. The existence of these cases already impacts on the fossil fuel industry’s license to operate.  Successful litigation would send an even more powerful signal to the global economy about the shaky future of fossil fuel companies.

Philanthropy plays a key role in supporting all manner of climate change litigation, but also in raising awareness about public opinion on climate change responsibility and duty to pay for its impacts.  Demonstrating a supportive public is an essential backdrop for legal decisions and increases their chances of success.

If you’re interested in how funders can work together to address these issues, get in touch with Eva Beresford.

By Eva Beresford, Climate Change Collaboration of The Mark Leonard Trust, Ashden Trust and JJ Charitable Trust.  

As DivestInvest Manager for the Climate Change Collaboration, Eva brings together other asset owners, NGOs and the finance sector to raise awareness and collaborate on topics related to divestment from fossil fuels and investment in climate solutions. She coordinates the (global) DivestInvest Exchange network (divestinvestexchange.slack.com).

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