Target the 90 companies who pollute the most. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released its third of four planned reports. This one is on mitigation, or the ‘human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases.’ There have been many such reports before by the IPCC and others; and many more reports are on their way. We have no reason to expect this latest IPCC report to galvanize the extensive climate action that’s needed.

The 25-year track record of the climate movement shows that very little has been achieved. Perhaps adapting the lessons learned from other successful social movements could be a promising path forward!

First, to push forward effective climate action we need to define the target narrowly. Harmful emissions come from many activities (the power sector, the transportation sector, agriculture, housing and others), and multiple energy sources (coal, oil, gas, land use). This variability contributes to the size of the climate movement and its propensity to shoot in multiple directions to try and cover oil, gas, coal, construction, transportation, manufacturing, food, travel, waste, e-waste, and many other industries.

In reality, ninety companies are responsible for two-thirds of the harmful emissions generated since the industrial age began. All are oil, gas, coal or cement companies and their CEOs can conveniently fit in a short Tesla convoy. They control five times as much oil, coal and gas as it is safe to burn; in other words, 80 per cent of their reserves must be locked away underground to avoid a catastrophe. These large companies, lobbying to prevent government action on climate change, are at the heart of our current carbon-intensive model destroying the planet.

Second, the climate movement must focus its message on people, not animals or things. Climate change challenges the most basic human rights: The right to life (climate change kills people), the right to subsistence (increased droughts, water shortages and floods affect the means of basic subsistence) and the right to health (climate change spreads diseases and injury). In Bangladesh alone, rising sea levels are expected to inundate 17 per cent of the land and displace 18 million people.

Research shows that climate change will impact society and could increase violent behaviour; political stability could be threatened and governing institutions put under further pressure. More climate action could arise if the scale of present and future human suffering were to be communicated consistently and becomes clear to all.

Third, to move towards significant climate action we need a drastic cut in emissions, leading to an economy fuelled with renewable energy. This much is clear. The problem is that the costs of climate action are not always accepted because it is not clearly understood what damages fossil fuels are causing. For example, according to a 2012 KPMG report, the largest 3,000 companies by market capitalization cause some £1.29trillion of environmental damage per year. All the climate action in the world won’t cost a fraction of this amount. We should also bear in mind that when human rights are violated, costs must take a back seat.

In short, a coherent approach to climate action would focus on the largest culprits, a small group of 90 companies. Fundamental change can be effected by focusing on their violations of basic human rights and the resulting suffering caused to tens of millions of people today, and many more tomorrow. Through effective action, these companies’ standing would be cut to what it should be ‘ about 20 per cent of the size they are today ‘ shifting investment capital away from them and towards clean energy and innovation. Starved of capital, they would no longer be able to extract the 80 per cent of fossil fuels we can’t afford. This process of change would be supported by strong institutions.

However, talking about human rights to the 90 companies sinking the rest of the world won’t work: witness Exxon’s recent disclosure about climate risks where it brazenly stated that in fact it doesn’t see how these are related to its plans to exploit all of its oil and gas reserves through 2040. Climate action should, therefore, focus on a narrow objective: Shrinking the market capitalisation of the companies most responsible for climate change and limiting their access to capital, thereby stifling their ability to exploit reserves and grow.

IPCC Report Highlights

1. Coastal systems and low-lying areas

By the end of the century, ‘hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced due to land loss.’

2. Food security

Climate change will reduce median yields by up to 2 per cent per decade for the rest of the century.

3. The global economy

A global mean temperature increase of 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels may lead to global aggregate economic losses of between 0.2 and 2.0 per cent.

4. Human health

Climate change will lead to increases in ill-health in many regions, with examples including an increased likelihood of under-nutrition.

5. Human security

Climate change over the 21st century will have a significant impact on forms of migration that compromise human security.

6. Freshwater resources

It will ‘reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions.”

7. Unique landscapes

Machair, a grassy coastal habitat found only in north-west Scotland and the west coast of Ireland is at risk from climate change.

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