Tuvalu PM warns against suing oil majors for climate damage

Litigation mooted by neighbour Vanuatu undermines UN climate deal chances, leader of low-lying Pacific island state says

Teafuafou island on the approach into Funfauti atoll, Tuvalu (Flickr/ Nick Hobgood)

An island on the approach into Funfauti atoll. Tuvalu is menaced by rising sea levels and storm surges (Flickr/ Nick Hobgood)

By Alex Pashley

Tuvalu, an atoll nation which peaks just 4m above sea level, has rejected moves to take fossil fuel companies to court as storms grow more severe.

Slapping carbon polluters with lawsuits would unpick delicate negotiations that are expected to produce a global agreement to curb climate change, prime minister Enele Sopoaga said.

“The option of litigation is there… it is certainly not the way Tuvalu ourselves would want to take,” Sopoaga told the UK parliament’s Commonwealth Association this week in response to a question by RTCC.

Report: Vanuatu backs plan to sue major carbon polluters for climate damage

In June, community leaders from several Pacific islands petitioned the Philippines Commission on Human Rights to probe carbon polluters’ liability in causing global warming and violating the rights of islanders.

Vanuatu president Baldwin Lonsdale attended the campaign meeting and called for affected communities to “stand united” – although he did not sign the petition.

Storm destruction

Cyclone Pam, a category five storm, thrashed the region in March. It damaged 90% of housing in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila and decimated crops and livestock.

The tropical storm in turn wiped out food sources on Tuvalu as ocean debris covered three of its nine islands, displacing many of its 10,000 population.

More than 190 countries are set to strike a global pact to limit temperature rises at a critical UN summit in Paris this December.

In spite of its size and negligible share of greenhouse gases, Tuvalu has an enlarged voice at talks given its vulnerability to a warming planet.

“I would rather caution about [litigation] in case we divert attention away from goodwill, diplomacy and negotiation and give this away to another process,” Sopoaga said.

The world’s top 12 fossil fuel giants pump more fossil fuel emissions a year than the US, Japan and Russia combined, research from Thomson Reuters revealed in May.

Leading polluters include Russia’s Gazprom, still part owned by the Kremlin, state-controlled Coal India, Anglo-Swiss commodities trader Glencore Xstrata and Anglo-Dutch oil firm Shell.

But while companies have faced litigation in the past due to localised pollution and health hazards, proving responsibility for specific climate impacts is a more difficult prospect.

Adaptation mode

The British-educated leader said Tuvalu was in constant adaptation mode as tropical storms buffet the remote islands, which lie equidistant between Australia and Hawaii.

Report: G7 nods to loss and damage claims with climate insurance pledge

“We strongly believe that these events are no longer natural. We believe the science that bodies like the IPCC [UN climate science panel] has been sharing with the world – that climate is influenced by human-induced activity,” he added.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014 synthesis study found tropical storms would likely get more intense, but not necessarily more frequent, as the planet warms.

More recent research published in May 2015 said tropical storms are becoming more violent but less common as temperatures rise, while a wider study from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction said 70% of natural disasters could now be linked to climate change.

Sopoaga called for a compensation fund, known as a ‘loss and damage mechanism’, to stay in the UN agreement. Talks have so far delivered little progress, with many developing nations fearing they could be landed with an unlimited bill.

Explainer: Loss and damage, a guide for the confused

Hugo Swire MP, a minister at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said on loss and damage: “There’s a theory it could open up any developed country to a challenge from any developing country.”

100% clean

Sopoaga announced Tuvalu aims to produce all of its energy needs through renewable energy in 2020, dependent on foreign assistance. Solar panels sit on its parliament building in capital Funafuti.

The former British colony, which acted as a launch pad for American planes in the War in the Pacific, uses the interest of a $200 million trust fund to make it more resilient to progressively extreme weather.

But it desperately needs more cash to build sea walls and prevent salinisation of its soil.

Sopoaga criticised the UN’s flagship Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries prepare for climate impacts, as hard to access with “paperwork higher than the sea level in Tuvalu”.

Tuvalu, which survives on foreign aid as well as the proceeds of the sale of an internet domain name .tv, the New York Times reported, fears that a looming upgrade from its status as “least developed country” will deprive it further of climate-fighting funds.

But for now, it is looking to the Paris climate summit, COP21, to define its future.

“In this time it is critical we continue to contribute whatever we can so that COP21 comes out with a positive and ambitious agreement that is acceptable to everybody,” Sopoaga said.

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