Twenty members of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) are jointly responsible for almost one sixth of all CO2 and methane emitted by human activity since the dawn of the industrial age. And the fact that we now know this could end up costing them a lot of money.

We know this because scientist Richard Heede published a paper today in the academic journal Climatic Change entitled Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854-2010 (see also The Guardian’s story and  interactive infographic on the report, as well as a Greenpeace backgrounder).

This research shows, for the first time, how 90 named entities (the largest multinational and state-owned producers of crude oil, natural gas, coal, and cement) have contributed the lion’s share (63 percent) of cumulative global CO2 and methane emissions over the last century and a half.

This information interests me as both a part-time academic and as a Greenpeace campaigner because of what it means for the issue of responsibility in climate politics.

Policy changes that seem politically impossible today may appear inevitable once oil company shareholders start sharing the pain of the victims of global warming-related extreme weather events. 

Right now, governments are paying the bulk of the costs for cleaning up after extreme weather events like the Calgary floods, typhoon Haiyan or hurricane Sandy. But as climate change makes these "weather on steroids" events more common, taxpayers are going to want those who created the problem to foot part of the bill to clean up the mess and prevent future ones.

Heede’s phrasing regarding the political implications of his work displays suitably academic caution, as he “invites consideration of the suggestion that some degree of responsibility for both cause and remedy for climate change rests with those entities that have extracted, refined, and marketed the preponderance of the historic carbon fuels.”

Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes is more direct, noting that Heede’s research points to an evolving trend in climate science: “Many people argue that ‘we are all responsible for climate change.’ But this research shows that’s a misleading statement, because some of us have used and profited from fossil fuels much more than others. This study gives us some data to jump-start a discussion that more accurately addresses the responsibility issue.”

And in the blunter words of veteran environmental journalist Damian Carrington:

“The new research is a landmark because knowing exactly who caused global warming is a big step towards knowing how to stop it….  Combating climate change is the biggest challenge ever faced by humanity. It is nothing less than re-engineering the world economy by taking on its greatest corporations. The new list shows that those vested interests may be great in power but they are small in number.”

In short: fossil fuel companies, and the people who run them, are on notice. It might take years, but they will be held to account, and this will radically shift investors assessment of their bottom lines.

To get a sense of what this might mean for the tar sands, I compared Heede’s list with the CAPP membership and found a lot of overlap. There are 20 CAPP members on Heede’s list and six are listed as based in Canada (this should perhaps be five now, as Nexen was recently bought by the Chinese state-owned oil company CNOOC).

One could, of course, argue that these companies didn’t always understand what their product was doing to the climate. But over half of total global emissions have occurred in the last 25 years, during which times CAPP members have financed “climate denial” campaigns that sought to prevent or delay action on climate change by casting doubt on the science.

Nor, in spite of launching multi-million dollar ad campaigns to tout their environmental commitments, have they changed their tune.

Here in Canada, Greenpeace recently obtained (via Alberta’s Freedom of Information legislation) internal correspondence and spreadsheets related to the 2013 negotiations between CAPP and the federal and provincial governments over proposed new carbon rules. These documents prove that CAPP opposed any new measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that would increase costs by more than 25 cents  per barrel. They also show the industry association lobbied (successfully, according to the Globe and Mail) to delay implementation of the regulations, which still haven’t seen the light of day in spite of first being promised back in 2008.

CAPP and Greenpeace are in rare agreement with respect to the global significance of the tar sands. We have identified them as one of the fourteen carbon mega-projects that we can’t afford to develop if we want to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. CAPP, on the other hand, is eager to point out that not only are the tar sands the third largest proven oil reserve on the planet, but they contain over half of the oil in the world that are accessible to investor-owned oil companies.

So preventing action on climate change in Canada – where the tar sands are the fastest rising source of greenhouse gases – is of global importance for oil companies. But it may ultimately prove to be costly.

Having borrowed from Big Tobacco’s political playbook in their campaign against action on climate change, Big Oil may find itself paying a similar price.

Tobacco companies eventually had to pay billions to help cover the health care costs of the diseases their product created. Oil companies, whose precise contribution to creating the problem has now been measured, may end up facing a bill several orders of magnitude larger to help communities deal with the costs of climate disasters and to finance the transition off of fossil fuels.

So rather than waiting for the tar sands to become the world’s biggest white elephant, let’s make the transition to a green economy now.