The Australian Greens have moved to propose new laws that would make fossil fuel companies and major greenhouse gas emitters legally liable for the damage caused by climate change.
Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt tabled proposed legislation on Monday that would make it legally clear that producers of coal, gas and oil could be held legally responsible for the damage caused by climate change or even ordered by a court to cut emissions.
In moving the legislation, Bandt hit out at the “crazy” policies of the Morrison government, including the most recent federal budget that included both increased funding for government agencies to respond to the impacts of climate change and billions of dollars of new subsidies for fossil fuels.
“This latest budget saw a government funded insurance scheme for natural disasters in Northern Queensland and multiple new funding streams for natural disasters,” Bandt said.
“But in the very same budget, a staggering $1.1 billion in new funding for coal, oil and gas companies was revealed. And then the very next week, the government committed a further $600 million for a new gas generator and $2.3 billion in subsidies to oil. It is crazy.”
Bandt said that the proposed Liability for Climate Change Damage Bill was a necessary response to the impacts of climate change that were already being felt by many within the Australian economy and the failure of the Morrison government to appropriately act to cut emissions.
“This is a bill for every tourism business that depends on the beauty of nature – from unburnt forests, clean rivers free from algal blooms, a healthy ocean not overrun with acidification and a Great Barrier Reef absent of deathly white bleaching,” Bandt said.
“It is a bill for every farmer that will again suffer through drought and everyone who lost their home in raging infernos during the fires of 2019 and 2020 or the floods of our last summer.
“This is a chance for justice for everyone bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and a chance to make the polluters pay for some of the costs of their pollution because the polluters knew decades ago the economic harm they would cause to businesses, families and communities everywhere, but they went ahead and did it.
“And, just as the law caught up with asbestos and tobacco companies, now it is catching up with the climate polluters too,” Bandt added.
The new legislation would establish new legal liabilities for major greenhouse gas emitters and fossil fuel producers. Any company responsible for more than one million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in any 12 month period could face legal consequences under the Greens proposal.
The one million tonne threshold would likely capture most of Australia’s major coal and gas producers, as well as most of Australia’s largest fossil fuelled power generators.
“The climate crisis will cause many multiples more damage than the recession that Covid inflicted and it will permanently impair or destroy businesses, but unlike Covid, with climate damage we know exactly who is to blame. We know who is pillaging profits at the expense of every single one of us who cherishes our children’s future,” Bandt told Parliament on Monday.
“The answer is coal, oil and gas companies. Their business of mining, fracking, burning and exporting their products has turbocharged these natural disasters. They have been profiting from their pollution. With the brief exception of two years during the carbon price, they have never had to pay a cent for the damage that they are inflicting on society.”
Under the laws proposed by the Greens, the federal court would have the power to award damages to any person or company for climate change related impacts, including damage to property, loss of land, or to cover the cost of repairs.
“It will also give state and federal governments the right to seek reimbursement for the damage to public infrastructure, the expenses involved in responding to climate induced disasters, and the cost of analysing, monitoring and researching weather systems and our rapidly changing climate systems,” he said. “This is fair. If you broke it, you buy it.”
The laws would also allow the Attorney-General of the Commonwealth, or of a State or Territory to bring legal action against a major greenhouse gas emitter.
In addition to awarding compensation for the impacts of climate change, the proposed laws would also enable the federal court to grant an injunction against a major emitter, requiring them to reduce or cease activities contributing to climate change.
The proposed legislation was seconded by independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who said that fossil fuel companies had long been aware of the future impacts of fossil fuel use and should be held liable for those impacts.
“Fossil fuel corporations not only knew about climate change decades ago, but they conducted their own research, which showed that burning coal oil and gas would result in a rapidly heating world,” Wilkie said.
“Which is why this bill is so important to hold such brazen and wilful polluters to account to finally make them pay for the real cost of their doing business.”
The Greens leader’s proposed legislation is highly unlikely to pass the parliament, is virtually guaranteed to be opposed by the Morrison government majority in the House of Representatives.