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Meet the climate catastrophe victim filing a criminal case against the bosses of oil firm Total

Benjamin risked his life trying to save his 15-year-old friend Rosa from climate-driven floods in 2021.
Benjamin risked his life trying to save his 15-year-old friend Rosa from climate-driven floods in 2021. Copyright Benjamin Van Bunderen Robberechts
Copyright Benjamin Van Bunderen Robberechts
By Lottie Limb
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Eight people have launched a criminal case against TotalEnergies' leaders, who they hold responsible for their climate tragedies.

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After his friend Rosa was swept away, 14-year-old Benjamin Van Bunderen Robberechts sat watching the treetops sway left to right outside the window.

He slouched in the chair because if he sat up, he could still see the raging stream that had taken her as they tried to reach their campsite base in Marcourt, Belgium.

“I thought then this is a moment I’m going to remember for the rest of my life,” he says. “I could hear the water and I could see the flashes of sirens through the window - police, ambulance, fire. But I was just sitting there looking at the trees.”

Rosa Reichel, 15, was one of more than 200 people who died in Western Europe’s July 2021 floods, which scientists say were made 20 times more intense by the climate crisis.

Despite the oily fingerprints of climate change, extreme weather disasters like this are usually framed as crimes without a perpetrator. But Benjamin, now 17, thinks he knows who the chief culprits are.

Alongside eight other climate victims and three NGOs, the teenager has launched a criminal case in Paris against the CEO, directors and main shareholders of TotalEnergies - the world’s sixth-biggest fossil fuel company.

Filed on 21 May, it is the first criminal complaint of its kind from victims and NGOs against the individuals running an oil and gas major. It comes after a surge in successful civil climate cases.

“What Total is doing is criminal, what they're doing is hurting people. It's killing people. So they have to be stopped,” Benjamin tells Euronews Green from his home in Brussels. “And it's clear that they're not going to do it on their own, or the politicians aren't going to stop them. So the last person to go to then is a judge.”

How climate tragedy struck a summer camp in Belgium

Benjamin has been attending climate marches since he was 10 years old. His desire to make a difference brought him to the United World Colleges summer camp on 10 July 2021.

After months of COVID lockdown, he was eager to make friends - and that wish was quickly granted. “I met an amazing girl there, Rosa,” he says, beginning a story he has told many times. 

Their conversations ranged from the near future - plans to visit a beautiful forest in Brussels, where Rosa also lived - to their adult dreams; putting the world to rights via wide-ranging chats about climate, Black Lives Matter and gender equality.

It rained all day on 13 July and heavier still on 14 July. They watched the Ruisseau de Quartes - a two-metre wide, five centimetre deep stream which cut through the campsite on route to the Ourthe river - rise up and turn brown.

At around 5pm, concerned that it would flood their dormitory, Rosa, Benjamin and other friends decided to cross the field to the main building where the camp leaders were.

The pair set out first towards the bridge, he recalls, “but suddenly the field flooded and we couldn't see where we were standing anymore.”

Rosa was taken by the water, says Benjamin, who jumped in after her. He managed to hold her with one arm, grasping at branches as they were pulled into the tumult, grabbing a fence pole sticking out of the bank. “But then an even bigger wave came and she slipped out of my hands.”

He crawled out of the river but lost sight of his friend. Rosa’s body was found by rescuers three days later, six kilometres downstream.

What is the criminal case against Total?

Cars submerged in floodwaters after the Meuse River broke its banks during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium, 15 July, 2021.
Cars submerged in floodwaters after the Meuse River broke its banks during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium, 15 July, 2021.AP Photo/Valentin Bianchi

“There were a lot of other things that went wrong,” says Benjamin, referring to the accident and the wider tragedy in Belgium - 38 other people died in the floods. “But the thing that started the chain reaction was the climate crisis.”

Since TotalEnergies was founded a century ago, its fossil fuel production has unleashed as much CO2 (15 billion tonnes) as the world’s 120 least emitting countries, according to NGO BLOOM.

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Records show that the company has known about the climate consequences of burning fossil fuels since at least 1971. But instead of changing course, the French oil major overtly denied the science until the early 1990s, researchers say. 

As the scientific consensus around anthropogenic climate change became undeniable, Total and other fossil fuel giants resorted to “ferocious lobbying” against EU policies to reign them in, observers said. 

After the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5C in 2015, Total refashioned itself as a renewable energy investor and announced a slew of climate targets. But as of 2023, Greenpeace calculates that 98 per cent of its energy production still comes from fossil fuels. 

Despite the IEA’s 2021 warning that no new oil and gas fields can be developed if the world is to stick to this (relatively) safe limit, Total has announced 30 new projects in the last three years, making it the second biggest company in terms of planned expansion.

As a result, the case seeks to establish criminal liability at Total on four grounds: deliberately engaging the lives of others, involuntary manslaughter, neglecting to address a disaster, and damaging biodiversity.

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“What is specific about the time we live in and what our litigation is trying to bridge is the gap that exists between the absolute scientific certainty of who bears the responsibility for the destruction of the world by climate change and the absence of clear sentencing by courts against climate crimes,” says Hadrien Goux, fossil fuel campaign officer at BLOOM, one of the three NGOs bringing the case.

Who else is involved in the Total climate case?

BLOOM has united with another French NGO, Santé Planétaire, and Mexico’s Nuestro Futuro. The seven other plaintiffs - all victims or survivors of climate-related catastrophes - come from Australia, France, Greece, Pakistan, the Philippines and Zimbabwe.

The French plaintiffs, known as Elisa and William C-R, lost their mother when Storm Alex caused sudden massive floods to tear through her home in the Vésubie Valley in 2020.

“I’m here to defend the honour of my mother, who died because of a climate disaster,” says William, who found her body 13 days later.

Total is already facing at least eight other climate lawsuits. This new criminal case, however, is unusual in that particular individuals and entities are named: CEO Patrick Pouyanné; members of Total’s Board of Directors; and the main shareholders who have voted for strategies incompatible with limiting warming to 2C, including Blackrock and Norges Bank. 

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Under the French legal system, complaints can be filed “against X”, leaving it open to the prosecutor to decide who among these groups to prosecute. 

They have three months to dismiss the complaint or open a judicial investigation - which could lead to an unprecedented trial. Each of the four offences is punishable by at least one year of imprisonment and tens of thousands of euros in fines.  

Total declined to comment, as it says it has not been officially informed of the complaint.

Climate activist, diplomat and plaintiff: How one teenager is fighting back

Three days after the case was filed, Total held its AGM in Paris and Benjamin was arrested for the first time while protesting outside.

His style of activism isn’t the kind that tends to get you handcuffed. Benjamin calls himself a “climate diplomat”, frequently addressing world leaders at high-level events like COP28. As part of his Climate Justice for Rosa campaign, he persuaded the European Parliament to make 15 July a day of remembrance for the global victims of the climate crisis. 

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But that didn’t stop him being hauled onto a police bus with dozens of others last Friday, stripped and put in a cell alone without a clock. 

The isolation was particularly distressing, he says, because he suffers from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Another reason he avoids big climate marches is because of the sound of helicopters - which takes him back to the constant noise of the police search in the days after Rosa disappeared. 

The protest charges were dropped at 7pm, but as a minor Benjamin had to wait for his mum to collect him. He passed that time in another holding area, among the high and bloodstained youth of Paris who had also landed on the wrong side of the law that night.

Afterwards, one of his first calls was to the victim support officer who helped him after Rosa’s death. 

PTSD makes everyday life difficult for Benjamin. Water is his biggest trigger: “It’s horrible to be next to a stream.” He used to cycle into Brussels by the canal, and now takes a 30-minute detour through the forest. 

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“I can’t be a normal teenager, I can’t just live without worry,” he says. He homeschools himself now, which at least has the benefit of enabling him to be a full-time activist too.

“I feel like my activism is the thing that helps me the most,” he says. “I wouldn't really know what I would do otherwise because I'm really just trying to stop this from happening over and over again.”

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