Lessons from Bhopal

By Terence Jeyaretnam

December 2nd this year will mark the 30th year anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the world’s worst industrial disaster, the scale of which was unprecedented.  Around 4,000 people perished, around 4,000 more were severely or permanently disabled, around 40,000 were temporarily partially injured and over half a million were injured.  The stillbirth rate increased by up to 300% and neonatal rate by around 200%.

The Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), held liable for the incident, ultimately settled out of court. In 1991, the local Bhopal authorities charged Warren Anderson, the CEO of UCC at the time of the disaster, who had retired in 1986, with manslaughter, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Bhopal tragedy was unplanned and the impact on the community was unprepared as a consequence.  Yet, 30 years on, communities around the world, especially those that are most vulnerable, are faced with unprecedented levels of death and destruction as a consequence of climate change – a global-scale environmental tragedy.  The World Health Organisation estimates that climatic changes already cause over 150,000 deaths annually, and the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that emerging evidence of climate change effects on human health shows that it has:

  • Altered the distribution of some infectious disease vectors (medium confidence)
  • Altered the seasonal distribution of some allergenic pollen species (high confidence)
  • Increased heat-wave-related deaths (medium confidence).

IPCC’s also suggests that projected trends in climate-change-related exposures of importance to human health include: 

  • Increased malnutrition and consequent disorders, including those relating to child growth and development (high confidence)
  • Increased number of people suffering from death, disease and injury from heat-waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts (high confidence)
  • Continued change to the range of some infectious disease vectors (high confidence)
  • Mixed effects on malaria; in some places the geographical range will contract, elsewhere the geographical range will expand and the transmission season may be changed (very high confidence).

History suggests that governments are either unprepared or unable to absorb losses from environmental impacts of such scale.  Corporations are usually easier targets.  On climate change, the UCCs and Warren Andersons of Bhopal are likely to be the largest of fossil fuel and carbon companies and their executives.  Corporate executives of major fossil fuel companies could face personal liability for funding climate denialism and opposing policies to fight climate change, say NGOs such as Greenpeace International, WWF and the Center for International Environmental Law who have recently written to the executives of large insurance corporations as well as fossil fuel and other carbon companies, seeking clarity on who will pay the bill if such a lawsuit is brought against their directors or officers.  The responses from the fossil fuel companies and insurers will be published on the Greenpeace International website.

Such activism, coupled with scientific evidence may have similar outcomes to Bhopal (and tobacco and asbestos companies from a public health point of view) in the court of law.  Corporations have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to review and manage this risk. 

Terence Jeyaretnam is the Executive Director of Net Balance, Terence is based in Melbourne.