Photo above courtesy of Merio/Pixabay
The Guardian’s new series of articles on fossil fuel companies’ culpability for the climate crisis is entitled “Climate Crimes.” Is this too extreme a title?
After all, Exxon and the others were just working within our legal, economic, and political systems to provide a commodity we all use every day. They may have known that global warming posed a risk, but people accept all kinds of risks in exchange for the many benefits of living a relatively affluent life in a modern, industrialized economy. Is it really appropriate to call them criminals—and accordingly, to take them to court all over the world?
I think the answer is yes. It comes down to the scale of the harm; the willful, systematic, and sustained nature of the lying; and the leading role the climate denial movement has played in the sustained assault on democracy that we see today.
I’m no lawyer, so this is not a legal judgment on my part. In fact, because the scale of the crime is so great, it seems to me that, notwithstanding a glimmer of hope here or there, the legal system so far seems ill-equipped to grasp it.
But the moral case, at least, is clear.
We know now that fossil fuel company researchers understood early on, from their own work as well as that of academic and government researchers, that warming due to human emissions of greenhouse gases posed risks at the planetary scale.
If a company were to dump toxic waste in your back yard, making the air you breathe and water you drink hazardous, they’d be liable for the harm they caused you. (Of course, fossil fuel companies have done exactly this also, in many places around the world, and often faced little consequence, particularly when the victims are from poor and marginalized communities.)
Increasing carbon dioxide concentrations globally doesn’t poison us, but it’s still broadly analogous to this backyard example—except on the scale of the entire planet. Instead of giving us cancer or heart disease, the increase in carbon dioxide emissions is making essentially irreversible changes in the environments in which we all live, such that they deviate from those to which our civilization is adapted.
We’ve known for some time that that’s exceedingly dangerous. We know it even better now, as we see unprecedented heat waves and wildfire seasons coming ever more frequently and sea level rise lapping at coastal cities. The scale of the harm is difficult, perhaps even impossible to calculate; for example, how do you account for a small probability of true global catastrophe due to unpredictable tipping points? Economists try to calculate it nonetheless, but it’s almost certain that they—and consequently also politicians—have historically grossly underestimated the sheer scale of the harm, because economics as a discipline is based on assumptions that don’t fit global-scale environmental crises.