In November 2013, American climate scientist Richard Heede, of the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute, published a paper with a revolutionary thesis. After nine years of researching the energy industry in dozens of countries, he concluded that nearly two-thirds of the world’s carbon dioxide and methane emissions dating back to the dawn of the industrial era were the responsibility of just ninety companies. Heede called them the “carbon majors.”
Not surprisingly, the biggest players were publicly owned fossil fuel corporations like Exxon-Mobil and Chevron, along with state-held or nationalized energy monopolies in countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia. Just five investor-owned companies—BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Shell—produced enough fossil fuel to account for 12.5 percent of human-generated CO2 since 1854. Seven of the carbon majors are cement manufacturers, a particularly noxious, carbon-intensive industry. The eighty-three energy producers on Heede’s list extracted, refined and marketed the oil, gas and coal that have powered modern civilization. Along the way, they started the process that will ultimately cause our climate system to crash.
Heede’s paper, published in the journal Climatic Change, is arguably the most provocative piece of scientific research in the climate field in years. However, except for a dismissive reference in a New York Times blog and a small piece in the Los Angeles Times, the major American media outlets ignored it.
But the lawyers didn’t.
In September, two months before Heede’s article was published, leading environmental attorneys from around the world met with Heede at a confidential workshop at American University in Washington, DC, to discuss what role his findings might play in lawsuits that could force fossil fuel companies (or their government regulators) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Matthew Pawa, a climate attorney based in Massachusetts, calls Heede’s work “hugely important.”
“What Heede did helps assign blame. It’s a list with names and numbers. It individualizes responsibility in a way that had not been done before,” says Pawa, who brought a suit against ExxonMobil and other carbon majors seeking climate-related damages for an Alaskan Eskimo village that will be largely engulfed by the Chukchi Sea within a matter of decades.
One well-established environmental lawyer is in the preliminary stages of putting together a lawsuit employing Heede’s statistics. Other attorneys were quick to praise the study, but cautioned that no one has yet hit upon a legal theory that can use Heede’s work to force the carbon majors to cough up some of the astronomical sums that experts believe must be spent worldwide to adapt to rising seas, heat waves, droughts and other extreme-weather events caused by climate change—not to mention help pay for the damage already caused.
“You really need the science to do anything legally,” says Sharon Eubanks, the former head of the Justice Department’s “tobacco team,” which got a federal judge to award a civil judgment against the major cigarette companies in 2006 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. “Policy, litigation—all of that follows the science,” she adds. “But that’s far from all you need. You need a legal theory that fits the facts and can survive attack in a real courtroom.”