CLIMATE WATCH - If you’re a reasonably young person who is opposing measures to address climate change for reasons of financial or political gain, be afraid. Be very afraid.
Largely out of public view, there is a growing advocacy for treating certain forms of climate change denial as a crime. The political will to do this doesn’t exist today, of course, but give it a decade or two. The planet is warming faster than predicted. Oceans are warming more rapidly than expected, extreme weather events are occurring with unprecedented frequency; glaciers are disappearing, sea levels are rising, prolonged droughts are becoming common place, tropical diseases move North following the mosquitos, and much more.
Estimates of the number of people who will die each year because of climate change range from 250,000 to 5,000,000. And the butcher’s bill is sure to grow as the crisis worsens. The tragedy, of course, is this was preventable—every death, every extinction of a species—all unnecessary.
Humanity can’t say it wasn’t warned. Almost half a century ago Jimmy Carter became the first president to raise the alarm on climate change. But America chose Ronald Reagan, who quickly gutted Carter’s efforts to develop alternative energy sources. What a different world this would be if we had listened to Carter.
Why didn’t we listen? Why, for that matter, are so many people still not listening? Sociological studies suggest there are many factors contributing to climate change denialism. There is no doubt, however, the biggest factor has been the political war on truth initiated by the petroleum industry and other polluting enterprises. With help from their political cronies, they have been extraordinarily successful in convincing a large minority of the population that scientific truth is found, not in a laboratory, but from blowhards on talk radio.
But time has a way of catching up with scientific falsehoods. Earlier than expected, climate change is now impacting our lives in profound ways. And with every passing year, climate change’s impact on our lives will grow, and maintaining the fog of lies will become correspondingly more difficult.
It will soon become undeniable, not only that the climate change crisis is real, but also that a crime has been committed. The most consequential crime in world history. And the demands for justice will grow.
No one would argue that every MAGA loudmouth shouting in a tavern that climate change is a hoax should be hauled to The Hague for trial. If the sting of criminal law is to be applied to climate change deniers, it will need to be done selectively, enforced against only the worst offenders: the people with money and power who choose to put maximizing their personal wealth (and/or political power) above the future of the planet.
The moral case for holding this select group criminally responsible Is powerful. The three traditionally stated justifications for criminal punishment are: deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation. All three fit here to some degree. The deterrence effect of criminalizing climate related fraud would be powerful. The likelihood that their actions will help to ruin, and in many cases end, the lives of billions of souls may not be enough to get these people to change their conduct, but the thought of sitting in jail for years often would.
The same basic point applies to incapacitation. If the people spreading climate misinformation for profit are arrested, tried and thrown into jail, their ability to continue such actions will greatly diminish and hopefully disappear altogether. While it is unlikely silencing fraudulent conduct by these few people would empty the sewer of misinformation, it would at least slow it.
What deterrence and incapacitation have in common, of course, is they both have expiration dates. The scientific consensus is that at some point, probably very soon, the earth will pass a tipping point after which catastrophic climate change will become unstoppable. Some scientists think we may already have passed that point, though most believe there is still time, if very little, to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. Once that line is crossed it will be too late to prevent disaster, which would mean that deterrence and incapacitation’s value will have largely been squandered.
That is when retribution will take center stage. A generation of Americans who were too young, and too powerless, to prevent the disaster will be suffering the consequences of prior generations’ failure to act. By the time they have grown into a political majority and have the political heft that goes with it, they’ll find there’s little they can do. It’s too late.
Given this history, does anyone seriously believe this betrayed generation will let bygones be bygones?
Not a chance.
They will demand justice. And the only form of justice available will be retribution, which in this context will mean imprisonment of offenders. And while there will be non-frivolous legal arguments over whether such prosecutions are lawful, including claims that they would constitute an expo facto prosecution (prosecuting someone for conduct that was not criminal at the time committed), have no doubt, given the likely state of public rage, ways will be found to overcome such defenses.
But this type of justice will be incomplete. Most of the worst offenders will have already died peacefully from old age, escaping all forms of justice, at least in this world. But not all of the guilty will be gone. Given the quickening pace of disasters related to climate change, there is reason to believe that by twenty years from now, perhaps ten, a worldwide consensus will have been reached as to the dimensions of the disaster, it’s cause, and the extent of the betrayal. Calls for justice will surely soon follow.
Many of today’s leaders of the corporations that are still contributing to climate change, and still resisting the scientific consensus, are now in the prime of their lives. The same goes for many of the politicians guilty of bad-faith climate change denial. The majority of these people will still be alive at the times we are talking about. Most will have been living comfortable lives with enough money to largely protect themselves from the early consequences of climate change.
But there is every reason to believe, justice, or the closest thing to justice possible, will track many of them down. And many may well die in prison.
So, once again, if you’re a reasonably young person who opposes measures to address climate change for reasons of financial or political gain be afraid. Be very afraid.
(Steven Day practices law in Wichita, Kansas and is the author of The Patriot's Grill, a novel about a future America in which democracy no longer exists, but might still return. This article was first featured in Common Dreams.)