Research from CSSN scholar Ryan Gunderson examines the effectiveness of litigation against fossil fuel companies and offers alternative approaches.
This paper examines the social-theoretical assumptions and assesses the potential effectiveness of holding carbon-intensive corporations legally accountable for climate change harms. We argue that the structure of private corporations operating in a growth-dependent capitalist social formation is the problem, not concrete companies. Ignoring social structure has practical consequences. Assuming favourable court outcomes in the future – a questionable assumption considering remaining procedural obstacles and the status quo-preserving tendencies of law –, bringing claims against corporations for civil wrongs will remain ineffective as a mitigation strategy because many carbon-intensive corporations can absorb substantial lawsuit-related costs and, even if legal costs push fossil fuel companies out of business, their competitors will step in to extract open reserves. Changing the law, rather than pursuing individual offenders, will necessarily need to provide more systemic recourse to environmental degradation. We recommend a potentially more effective mitigation strategy for which lawyers concerned about climate change could lend knowledge, resources, and time: fossil fuel nationalisation.