Obama BP tirade opens door to climate reparations

There’s something of a backlash in the UK against Barack Obama’s theatrical persecution of the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP shares and dividends form the bedrock of British middle class mutual savings.

I must admit to a professional relish for the president to sustain his act a little longer.

This is not on account of the financial distress of BP, bastion of an industry heartily disliked by environmentalists. Nor even the humiliation of its boss, Tony Hayward, the man who ditched the company’s green initiative to rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum”.

It’s the president’s insatiable appetite for environmental damages that I welcome. His team threatens to invoice BP for an ever-widening circle of economic woes. This week’s suggestion focused on the wages of oil workers laid off by the moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

Obama’s advisers appear determined to overlook that environmental compensation is by tradition anathema to American interests in foreign places. The latest round of UN climate change talks, completed on Friday in Bonn, served up plenty of reminders.

Much of the procedural infighting in these negotiations is motivated by the US desire to escape the legal commitments established in the original 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Richer countries signed up “for meeting costs of adaptation to those adverse effects (of climate change)” in the poorest countries.

When challenged on this point at the Copenhagen climate conference last December, the US special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, said: “we absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere, up there, but the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that.”

Every headline about BP’s plunging financial health, every grasping attempt to rewrite Federal laws capping the liability of foreign investors, will draw attention to the inconsistent US management of environmental pollution at home and abroad.

In the climate change example, the source of pollution is the same as from the ill-fated Macondo well. Through the 20th century, US greenhouse gas emissions exceeded those in Africa by a factor of ten.

Bill McKibben, founder of climate campaigning group 350.org, has observed that “if that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car, it would have wrecked the planet just as powerfully.”

In its preparatory meetings for the 2009 Copenhagen conference, the African Union toyed with expressing its demands for climate adaptation finance in the tough language of legal reparations.

Its member countries were only too aware that entire nomadic cultures are being destroyed in the expanding deserts of Mauritania and Niger; that livelihoods of farmers throughout the continent have been undermined by bewildering seasonal patterns. And that the low-lying coastal cities of West Africa exist one high tide away from devastation.

Financial assistance to deal with these problems has been largely non-existent. Presidential promises of compensation for the temporary loss of livelihoods of Louisiana fishing communities will not be lost on African climate change negotiators.

Discarding long-established principles of limited liability in the treatment of BP could rebound on US Inc in general and on Todd Stern in particular. Obama’s obsession with finding “ass to kick” has exposed the posterior of his special envoy to climate activists.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK