Greenpeace is putting the corporate executives of major fossil fuel companies on notice that they could face personal liability for funding climate denialism and opposing policies to fight climate change.

Together with WWF and the Center for International Environmental Law, Greenpeace has written letters to 35 fossil fuel companies and more than 45 insurance companies  to seek clarity on who will pay the bill if such a lawsuit is brought against their directors or officers. The letters have gone to companies around the world (full list here), including five oil companies based in Canada (Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Encana, Husky Energy, Suncor and Talisman), as well as the Canadian insurance companies Manulife Financial, RBC Insurance and the Reinsurance Research Council.

We have taken this step because recent events have brought home just how personal the impacts of climate change can be. 

“It’s personal to the victims of super typhoon Haiyan who lost family members and homes in the Philippines. It’s personal to farmers in California and Australia whose land is now too dry for farming,” said Leanne Minshull, Greenpeace International’s Climate and Energy Campaigner. “It should also be personal for any oil, gas and coal company directors who mislead the public by funding climate denialism and stopping action on climate change. The responsibility – not just the devastating effects – should be personal.”

Generally, liability policies provide coverage for claims that put individual directors’ and officers’ assets at risk. These liability policies protect individuals who are conducting their business in good faith but are at risk of being held liable for undesirable business occurrences, which may be beyond their control.  However, a serious question is whether these policies would cover a director facing a climate-related claim.

Commentators are now predicting that an increasing number of legal actions will be brought against fossil fuel companies as the impacts of climate change bite deeper.

Oil companies fighting against action to address climate change is a hot topic in Canada, where Greenpeace has obtained evidence of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers lobbying governments in 2013 against enacting the long-promised greenhouse gas regulations for the oil and gas sector (read the stories in the Globe and Mail andCBC, or review the original documents yourself). And one of the Canadian companies on the list (Talisman) was caught secretly funding a climate denial ad campaign in the 2005-6 federal election.

The letters (with supporting evidence and a list of detailed questions) state:

The corporations who share the majority of responsibility for the estimated global industrial emissions of CO2 and methane over the past 150 years mayhave been or may be working to defeat action on climate change and clean energy by funding climate denial and disseminating false or misleading information on climate risks (see Annex A). These actions are being taken despite increased awareness of the threats associated with climate change among shareholders, insurance industry, and many others, and the overwhelming body of climate science on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

While lawful lobbying is a vital part of the democratic process, corporate influence – either directly or through outside organisations – aiming to obstruct action on climate change, coupled with the development, sponsorship or dissemination of false, misleading or intentionally incomplete information about the climate risks associated with fossil fuel products and services to regulators, shareholders, and insurers could pose a risk to directors and officers personally.  In particular, the threat of future civil or criminal litigation could have major implications for Directors and Officers liability insurance coverage (see Annex B).

We ask that you respond within four weeks to the “Questions for fossil fuel company [or insurance company] directors and officers” (see Annex D).  The substance of this letter, along with a list of companies to which we have sent letters is posted on the Greenpeace International website, and your response will also be posted soon after its receipt.

Sending these letters is a first step in what will likely be a long legal campaign. Yet this is a legal strategy that has been successfully pursued before.

In joining this initiative, the President of the Center for International Environmental Law Carroll Muffett said that “from asbestos to tobacco to oil spills, history shows that those who mislead the public, the market or the government about the risks of their products, or the availability of safer alternatives, can face substantial legal liability, both as companies and as individuals. As the impacts of climate denialism and regulatory obstruction become clear, we want to understand how corporations, insurers, and officers and directors are allocating those risks among themselves.  Just as importantly, we ask what steps they're taking to prevent the misconduct that creates those risks in the first place."

Ultimately it is about assigning and accepting responsibility. Samantha Smith, leader of WWF's Global Climate and Energy Initiative, says fossil fuel companies owe it to their shareholders and the public to tell us the truth about the devastating impacts of their activities on our shared climate. “Sooner or later, those who hide the facts and oppose policies to fight climate change will be held to account by the courts. By signing this letter, we hope to bring attention to the importance of truthful, transparent and responsible corporate reporting and policy engagement on climate change.”