With mounting evidence that climate change increases the risk of natural disasters, governments should turn the tables on international petroleum companies and hold them responsible, Prof İbrahim Özdemir argues.
On Monday, earthquakes in my country Turkey and neighbouring Syria left a trail of unprecedented devastation and a death toll surpassing 16,000 people at the last count.
We do not know for sure what triggered this horrific natural disaster, but we do know there is growing scientific evidence that climate change increases the risk of such tremors, together with tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
“If a fault is primed or ready to rupture, all that is needed is the pressure of a handshake to set if off [...] Environmental changes associated with rapid and accelerating climate breakdown could easily do the job,” professor of geophysics and climate hazards at University College London Bill McGuire pointed out back in 2012.
Furthermore, NASA scientists acknowledged that glaciers retreating due to global warming have been triggering earthquakes in Alaska in the last decades.
The impact is not limited to the Arctic. As melting glaciers change the distribution of weight across the Earth’s crust, the resulting "glacial isostatic adjustment" drives changes in plate tectonics that could lead to more earthquakes, awaken volcanoes and even affect the movement of the Earth’s axis.
This particular consequence of global warming "warns us of a seismically turbulent future," one recent study concluded.
Unfortunately, it is not just earthquakes. Climate and weather-related disasters have surged five-fold over the past five decades, killing over two million people, with 91% of the casualties in developing countries. And it is only getting worse.
Is there accountability for Big Oil's 'ever more invasive ways'?
Fossil fuel companies bear significant responsibility for the climate emergency yet enjoy near-total impunity. At the same time, they are consistently reaping record profits — while ordinary citizens across the globe struggle to pay their household bills.
A series of investigations and legal proceedings over the years have shown how fossil fuel giants call the shots: they use and abuse the rule of law to escape accountability for environmental pollution, resource-grabbing and cronyism. Those objecting are often silenced.
Just over the last decade, fossil fuel companies in the United States have targeted over 150 environmental activists with lawsuits. Meanwhile, dozens of US states are in the process of enacting “critical infrastructure” legislation, increasing criminal penalties against activists protesting pipelines that will wreck the planet.
One European Parliament study similarly found that EU-based mining, oil, and gas extraction companies are increasing impacts on indigenous communities in “ever more invasive ways”.
Third-party litigation funding (TPLF) is another approach exploited by Western oil and gas interests, where claimants raise funds from outside investors who take the lion's share of the proceeds.
Since 2012, US investment fund Tenor backed the $1.4 billion (€1.3bn) claim of a Canadian mining firm against the Venezuelan government, permitting a court-ordered seizure of its Houston-based oil company.
Tenor is also targeting other developing countries and their governments, with a $4.4bn (€4.1bn) claim by Gabriel Resources Ltd against Romania and a $764 million (€712,4m) one by Eco Oro Minerals Corp against Colombia.
The curious case of 'Sultanate of Sulu'
Another firm spearheading such cases is the London-based legal financing giant Therium. In 2021, Therium backed the UK-based Victoria Oil & Gas against the Republic of Kazakhstan on the grounds that Astana breached an agreement with the company after kicking it out of the country to take over its own oil field. Victoria Oil & Gas lost the case.
But Therium scored a victory last year by funding the descendants of the long-vanished "Sultanate of Sulu," who received a $15bn (€13.9bn) award from a French court against the Malaysian government.
The case laid claim to profits from Malaysia’s oil and gas projects in the eastern region of Sabah, based on a defunct colonial-era treaty with the British Crown.
The claimant’s legal team also have links to oil and gas interests.
Paul H Cohen of 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, who openly talks of using European courts to confiscate “specific Malaysian assets” in multiple jurisdictions, has regularly represented oil and gas clients in international arbitrations.
Elisabeth Mason, another lawyer representing the Sulu heirs, works closely with executives from tech giants Google and Facebook.
Famously, both have been accused of backing organisations involved in climate denial and making millions from ads for ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Shell or entities like The American Petroleum Institute — all labelled by activists as attempts at "greenwashing".
What is more important: interests of few, or our planet and its people?
I am not suggesting a conspiracy. These cases solely go to show how fossil fuel interests still hold extraordinary clout across sectors and national borders, despite ever-increasing proof that they are among those ultimately responsible for climate change and the ongoing climate emergency.
The problem is systemic: there is a long-demonstrated preference for the interests of fossil fuel firms and their allies rather than the people and the planet.
No wonder UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently demanded that fossil fuel companies that do not set a “credible course for net zero” by 2030 “should not be in business”.
Governments must take this message seriously by joining forces to end this giant profit-making scheme against the planet.
How? Instead of being sued by them, governments should consider whether and how to hold fossil fuel firms liable for the damages their operations have caused to countless victims worldwide. The potential proceeds should be then invested in accelerating net zero.
Otherwise, we will see more tragedies like what has befallen my country.
Professor İbrahim Özdemir is a UN advisor and an ecologist teaching at Üsküdar University. He has served as Director-General at the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Turkish Ministry of Education and was a leading member in drafting the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change endorsed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC.
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