Voices: The time has come to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the destruction they have caused

Climate change is no longer an issue that will only affect our children (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Climate change is no longer an issue that will only affect our children (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The oil and gas giant Shell announced a profit of £7.6 billion pounds this week; the company’s highest ever first quarter results. At the same time, millions of people in East Africa are on the brink of famine because of a drought which scientists announced last month would not have taken place without climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Millions of animals and livestock have died, and crops failed, pushing more than 20 million people into acute hunger, with some estimates saying the true figure is closer to 100 million. Scientists part of World Weather Attribution, an organization that assesses the impact of climate change on extreme weather events, said human-caused climate change has made the drought 100 times more likely.

The moral case for holding these fossil fuel companies responsible for the harm they are creating is now clear. And it seems the UK public agree. Polling conducted by Savanta on behalf of Christian Aid has shown that 78 per cent of the public believe it’s wrong for fossil fuel giants to profit without taking responsibility for the damage caused by their activities.

The people suffering the worst impacts of climate change have done almost nothing to cause the crisis they now suffer from. Per capita, the UK emits 57 times more carbon than Somalia, and yet it is Somalians facing drought that is destroying their lives and livelihoods.

The good news is that the world is waking up to this injustice. At the COP27 climate summit last year, countries agreed for the first time to create a Loss and Damage Fund which would help compensate people who have faced catastrophic losses due to climate change. That was a major victory for vulnerable countries, and offers hope that justice may finally be served.

But currently the fund is an empty bucket, and until countries start to fund it, no help or justice will be on its way to those facing such terrible consequences for the actions of the rich world. What better source of funds to bring help to the climate vulnerable than the profits from the oil and gas which has caused their plight?

The “polluter pays” principle is the obvious solution. The UK government should tax the record profits of these fossil fuel giants and use that revenue to make the UK’s contribution to the Loss and Damage Fund. Not only is this the right thing to do, the public backs it. In the same polling from Christian Aid, 63 per cent of UK adults agreed that the government should tax fossil fuel profits to pay into the fund.

This view was shared by that other source for testing the pulse of the nation – Gogglebox. The Channel 4 show, where viewers watch a selection of fellow Britons as they themselves watch TV, saw widespread anger at the injustice of climate change and support for the Loss and Damage Fund when they were shown a news package about COP27 last year. As Pete Sandiford from Blackpool said, if someone crashed their car into his living room, he wouldn’t be expected to pay for it. He said: “You’d be going ‘hang on a minute, you’ve caused the damage, you’re fixing it’.”

Any well-functioning market needs to have feedback loops to ensure that the negative impacts of certain activities are reflected within the market itself, and so a true cost of those activities are then captured and understood. Climate change is an example of a market failure where the negative consequences of the emissions are not felt by those that make, sell and use them, but by people who have had nothing to do with them. Taxing these profits and channelling the money to the Loss and Damage Fund would be a step towards redressing this catastrophic imbalance.

The need is great, the science is clear, the moral case is obvious and the public are supportive. What is lacking is political action. This is why Christian Aid is calling on people to contact their MPs to make the case for this simple tax which would bring much needed help and fairness to those suffering the most.

We are fortunate to live in a democracy where our MPs are accountable to us, the voting public. Writing to your MP or going to visit them is likely a far more impactful act than all the votes an individual will ever cast. Elections are rarely won by a single vote, but a single letter or conversation with your MP can change their mind. MPs take note of the issues their constituents write to them about.

Climate change is no longer an issue that will only affect our children. It is affecting people now; people who have done nothing to deserve it. Taxing the record profits of the likes of Shell is a first step to righting this wrong, and bringing life-giving help to those who need it most.

Steven Croft is Bishop of Oxford, and a member of the Lords Select Committee for the environment and climate change