Remember when smoking was allowed almost everywhere – the office, the train station, even on the tube? Not too long ago it was cool, cheap and socially acceptable. Today that would be unimaginable. Much has changed in the past few decades. The link between smoking and cancer is no longer challenged; it is no longer allowed at work and public places due to the health hazard it poses to others; and as a consequence it has also been taxed heavily.
Fossil fuels are in some ways a lot like tobacco –industry lobbyists continue to present them as cheap and socially acceptable. The fast-growing divestment campaign has done lots to pressurise large companies and other investors into being more socially responsible, but claims that fossil fuels are not only cheap but good for our societies are still widespread. Accounting for the true costs of fossil fuels – that’s including how they affect our health and environmentl– wind and solar are already significantly cheaper.
But the companies benefiting from fossil fuels still spin them as a guarantee of prosperity for future generations, rather than a threat to it. Statoil for example would like you to think natural gas will help solve climate change. Sometimes they are challenged by the UK advertising watchdog, as was Easyjet’s ‘Fly greener, fly easyJet’ campaign, but more often they are not.
The progress made in challenging the tobacco industry came largely through legal action: after initially losing case after case, things started to turn around in the late 1960s. Given these similarities, will fossil fuels also be dragged through the courts?
Today that looks like a strong likelihood. A Dutch court ruled that the Dutch government has failed to do enough to curb climate change and swiftly set a new target in its verdict. The lawsuit was pursued by the sustainability foundation Urgenda which argued the Dutch government failed to protect its citizens from dangerous changes. Action elsewhere could now easily follow this lead, this one case alone though already sending a very strong signal to citizens and governments around the world. In fact a similar case is already being pursued by a group of citizens in Belgium and even in the Philippines.
While this is clearly a landmark case and will hopefully set in motion a wave of climate change cases around the world, fossil fuel extraction and the tobacco industry are also crucially different in three ways. Firstly, in the case of fossil fuels we are working against the clock, making strong early action necessary – something difficult to achieve through bureaucratic and slow legal systems. Secondly, the time it takes for the damage from fossil fuels to materialise is much longer – making it harder to motivate action now. And thirdly, the damage from fossil fuels does not necessarily affect the user. Not only does this damage occur to another generation but it will also affect different individuals to different degrees that are unrelated to their own contribution to the problem. All of this makes legal action much trickier.
Nonetheless what was achieved in the Netherlands today sends a strong signal in the run-up to a climate deal in Paris that the divestment campaign is gaining ground. While the court system may just be one avenue of many, it is certainly a powerful one.