A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaign On Climate Change

I. Introduction.

This post examines the question of whether some US companies are guilty of a new kind of crime against humanity that the world has yet to classify. This post is not meant to be a polemic but a call for serious engaged reflection about deeply irresponsible corporate-sponsored programs that have potentially profound harsh effects upon tens of millions of people living around the world, countless millions of future generations, and the ecological systems on which life depends. This post seeks to encourage further reflection on the issues discussed here.

II. Corporate Disinformation Campaign

Although skepticism in science is needed to make science advance, for almost thirty years some corporations have supported a disinformation campaign about climate change science that has been spreading untruths and distortions about climate science. Several recent books document how this disinformation campaign began in the1980s including a book by Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt. (Oreskes and Conway, 2010)

Although it may be reasonable to be somewhat skeptical about climate change models, some corporate sponsored participants in the climate change disinformation campaign have been spreading deeply misleading distortions about the science of climate change. These untruths are not based upon reasonable skepticism but outright falsification and distortions of climate change science. These claims have included assertions that that the science of climate change that is the foundation for calls to action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been “completely debunked” and that there is no evidence of human causation of recent observed warming. Reasonable skepticism cannot make these claims or others frequently being made by the well-financed climate change disinformation campaign.

Given that there are thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies that support the consensus view on the dangers of continuing to emit increasing levels of greenhouse gases, that most Academy of Sciences around the world have issued statements in support of the consensus view articulated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there are virtually no peer-reviewed scientific articles that prove beyond reasonable doubt that observed warming is naturally caused, that there are a huge number of attribution, fingerprinting, and analyses of isotopes of greenhouse gases that are appearing in the atmosphere that point to human causation, that the basic physics of exactly what initially happens when greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere in terms of absorbing and reradiating heat in watts per square meter has been understood for over 150 years, claims that the science of climate change have been “completely debunked” and that there is no evidence of human causation are patently false. These claims do not represent reasonable skepticism but utter distortions about a body of evidence that the world needs to understand to protect itself from huge potential harms.

On October 21, 2010, the John Broder of the New York Times, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2, reported, that “the fossil fuel industries have for decades waged a concerted campaign to raise doubts about the science of global warming and to undermine policies devised to address it.” According the New York Times article, the fossil fuel industry has ” created and lavishly financed institutes to produce anti-global-warming studies, paid for rallies and Web sites to question the science, and generated scores of economic analyses that purport to show that policies to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases will have a devastating effect on jobs and the overall economy.”

Without doubt those telling others that there is no danger heading their way have a special moral responsibility to be extraordinarily careful about such claims. For instance, if someone tells a child laying on a railroad tracks that they can lie there all day because there is no train coming and has never checked to see if a train is actually coming would be obviously guilty of reprehensible behavior.

Disinformation about the state of climate change science is extraordinarily if not criminally irresponsible because the consensus scientific view of climate change is based upon strong evidence that climate change harms:

(1) are already being experienced by tens of thousands in the world;

(2) will be experienced in the future by millions of people from greenhouse gas emissions that have already been emitted but not yet felt due to lags in the climate system; and,

(3) will increase dramatically in the future unless GHG emissions are dramatically reduced from existing global emissions levels.

These harms include deaths and harms from droughts, floods, heat, storm related damages, rising oceans, heat impacts on agriculture, loss of animals that are dependent upon for substance purposes, social disputes caused by diminishing resources, sickness from a variety of diseases, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, the inability to use property that people depend upon to conduct their life including houses or sleds in cold places, the destruction of water supplies, and the inability to live where has lived to sustain life. In fact, the very existence of some small island nations is threatened by climate change.

As long as there is any chance that climate change could create this type of destruction, even assuming, for the sake of argument, that these harms are not yet fully proven, disinformation about the state of climate change science is extraordinarily morally reprehensible if it leads to non-action in reducing climate change’s threat when action is indispensable to preventing harm. In fact how to deal with uncertainty in climate change science is an ethical issue, not only a scientific matter, because in the case of climate change:

• If you wait until all the uncertainties are resolved it is likely to be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change.
• The longer one waits to take action, the more difficult it is to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of climate change at safe levels.
• Those most vulnerable to climate change include some of the poorest people in the world and they have not consented to be put at risk in the face of uncertainty.

The October 21 New York Times article mentioned above concludes that some US corporate sponsored activities are helping elect politicians that have been influenced by the most irresponsible climate change scientific skeptical arguments. These corporations are clearly doing this because they see climate change greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies as adversely affecting their financial interests. This fact leads to even greater moral culpability for American corporations because their behavior is as offensive as if the person who tells the child train that no train is coming when they don’t actually know whether a train is on its way makes money by misinforming the child.

The October 21rst New York Times article concludes that the oil, coal and utility industries have collectively spent $500 million just since the beginning of 2009 to lobby against legislation to address climate change and to defeat candidates who support actions to reduce the threat of climate change. It would be one thing for an American corporation to act irresponsibly in a way that leads to harm to Americans, but because of climate change’s global scope, American corporation’s have been involved in behavior that likely will harm tens of millions of people around the world. Clearly this is a new type of crime against humanity. Skepticism in science is not bad, but skeptics must play by the rules of science including publishing their conclusions in peer-reviewed scientific journals and not make claims that are not substantiated by the peer-reviewed literature. The need for responsible skepticism is particularly urgent if misinformation from skeptics could lead to great harm. For this reason, this disinformation campaign being funded by some American corporations is arguably some kind of new crime against humanity.

III. Conclusion
The international community does not have a word for this type of crime yet, but the international community should find a way of classifying extraordinarily irresponsible scientific claims about climate change that could lead to mass suffering as some type of crime against humanity. What do we call such behavior?

By :
Donald A. Brown,
Associate Professor,
Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law
Penn State University


Broder, John, (2010) “Climate Change Doubt Is Tea Party Article of Faith” New York Times, October 21, 2009, http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/us/politics/21climate.html?sort=newest&offset=2,

Oreskes, Naiomi, and Erik. Conway, 2010, Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth On Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming Bloosmbury Press, New York.

113 thoughts on “A New Kind of Crime Against Humanity?: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaign On Climate Change

  1. In reading the posts by people who try to argue against AGW, I find that they want to continue “business as usual”, and to disregard the evidence of their senses. The air is less clean (remember how fresh the air smelled when we were kids?); the land is highly polluted (so many “brownfields”); humans are pushing many species to extinction (by our sheer numbers); the corals are dying (due to acidification / warming)… These are multiple lines of evidence that people are destroying our habitat. What will it take for people to look outside and compare What Was to What Is? All these effects add up, and point to people pushing the planet’s natural carbon cycle and regenerative capacity into overload and breakdown. It doesn’t take a scientist to see what is happening. All you have to do is open your eyes.

  2. Thinking does not solve problems it merely expresses the possibility. This vast, uniquely human capacity brings to mind a contemporary criticism of the medical system as one that defines a healthy person as one who has not been fully worked up.
    Outside this glorious realm of thoughts and laughs,(I have enjoyed both above) the work of finding and defining a real, live lie and not the presumption of one is the first step in proving a truth. In this sense, a lie and the truth are brothers. They are born of an honest union in most cases, but now they walk the earth telling stories of their competitive exploits and views on how the world works. In this way, they represent the reasonableness of adjudication systems by asking us to choose between two versions of the truth. They differ and vary in detail, but present honest as well as dishonest interpretations. They learn from us that we in the audience will pick the one we like most, making our choice a matter of categorical interest over factual accuracy. Does this mean if you the alter the audience might free the truth? Probably.
    Please take comfort in this chaotic combination of inductive and deductive processes, that from the specific to the general, and from the general to the specific because it evolves in stages. First, the legal concepts build up as cases are compared. Second level stages wrestle for a while with the inherent (often funny) ambiguity of language. The most dramatic are causation arguments. The causes of global warming are most well known. In this mix, the concept becomes exclusive, while the process of reasoning continues to place specific events inside and outside of the concept. A third condition emerges as reasoning through these examples moves ahead until matters of kind move into matters of degree leading to the breakdown of the concept into newly discrete components. Get it? It is back to basics.
    Change occurs in a kind of 3D matrix that defines where, when and why ideas ignite into use. This “four vehicular accidents equal one stop sign” solution is a problem because there is no proof in preemption. Nevertheless, the assignment of natural resource consumption rates is concrete. This is the “unsafe at any speed” narrative for our century. As consumption rates begin to exceed the earth’s replacement capacity, the examples of kind will have measurable quantities. Most of it is about making stuff directly attributable to the loss of life or a quality of it on predictable, known parts of the earth.
    I would work the concept you are developing in the climate change cases as the law against the presumption of entitled consumption.
    Take these steps:

  3. This is not an addiction, we have been snared, booby-trapped, trapped and imprisoned by the fossil fuel industrial complex.

    That would be the same fossil fuel industrial complex that makes it possible for you to comment from your computer, and that made your computer possible in the first place.

    The fact that the actions occur today, and the worst effects occur after 20 and more years, as the excess carbon dioxide slowly overheats the mass of ocean water, does not lessen the culpability.

    … and the fact that ocean water is opaque to infrared, and can thus not possibly be heated by radiation from CO2, of course does not lessen the culpability either, because not enough people are commuting to work on their bicycles.
    Take some deep breaths, Louise.

  4. The air is less clean (remember how fresh the air smelled when we were kids?); the land is highly polluted (so many “brownfields”); humans are pushing many species to extinction (by our sheer numbers); the corals are dying (due to acidification / warming)…

  5. Consider the Allied prosecution of the Nazis.
    One thing the Nazis tried to assert was that, because the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals etc. that they murdered were not members of a foreign army, no War Crimes had been committed.
    Then they went on to assert that because they were German citizens or under Germany’s control, and they were the German law, no domestic crime had been committed either.
    What the allies essentially did was say, well, here’s this new crime Crimes Against Humanity, and we’re going to charge you ex-post-facto.
    The Nazis protested that this was merely victor’s justice, and the prosecutor replied that probably the first person to be charged with murder had the same opinion.
    We all know the rest.
    The exact same thing obtains here.
    What these corporations and individuals have done is not substantially different from shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.
    They have engaged in false speech which endangers lives. In fact, they’ve killed people with their lies.
    Not to mention the felony conspiracy that they’re obviously guilty of.
    But the point is, this is not merely a felony; it’s a capital crime.
    It really doesn’t even matter that they believed their ideology at the time they committed their crime, any more than it mattered that the Nazis *really believed* their own ideology.
    Neither does it matter that they “broke no law” and anything we charge them with will be ex-post-facto.
    Mass murder is mass murder no matter how you dress it up. That’s the reality they’re going to be facing.
    Just like the Nazis.

  6. Along these same lines, I read in the NYTimes where a Vic Svec, spokesperson for Peabody Energy, replied to James Hansen’s assertions that the fabrication of doubt by the energy companies is, in fact, a criminal act.
    Of note is that Hansen compared the coal cars moving coal from the mountains to the railroad cars used to transport Jews during the Holocaust.
    Part of Svec’s rebuttal, which points he numbered, are here:
    Svec claims, quote:
    “2. The suggestion that a dissemination of ideas be criminalized –- coming from a government employee no less –- does hearken back to World War II. It is stunning and should be pounced upon by everyone who advocates free speech, from the ACLU and talk radio complex to yourself.”
    The problem with Svec’s defense is that it’s not ideas that are being criminalized, it’s lies or, to be more legalistic about it, statements so contrary to evidence which the speaker was well able to understand, that the speaker had no reasonable basis for his statements.
    Or, to take another angle, statements of fact upon a matter of the life and death of millions which the speaker knew he was not qualified to adjudicate and which went against collective, representative opinion of those who were duly qualified.
    In today’s legal thinking, this constitutes reckless endangerment at the very least and manslaughter or mass murder at the worst. And this does not even consider what terrorism charges might be brought under the new Patriot Act laws.
    But the vast scope of death and the extent of the financial ruin that will be visited upon the world’s peoples is really what will decide the issue of what the executive of ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy and The Cato Institute and all the rest will be charged with.
    That coming reality will elevate all this from the level of common criminality, however reprehensible, to Crimes Against Humanity and capital crimes.
    People in western wealthy countries do not yet feel themselves to be living in the time of climate change consequences. They still have food water and a stable geo-political landscape.
    Future generations of the same, including the one being born now, will not be so lucky.
    And they will not look on Svec’s “dissemination of ideas” in the benign way he does.
    It is for these people that we need to begin the work of hashing out the legal framework under which the climate criminals will be prosecuted, their assets seized and what new laws curtailing corporate power need to be enacted.
    We can also expect to see legal parameters defining what constitutes legitimate scientific consensus and evidence and what kind of crime lying about science will be considered.
    Svec writes:
    “3. Blaming big oil and big coal for the broad array of opinions about climate change is disingenuous. If he would imprison those who don’t march in lockstep with his views, the jails would be very, very big. It would include thousands of scientists and university professors and the likes of the president of the Czech Republic, a former founder of Greenpeace and the former founder of The Weather Channel.”
    All of this is beside the point. Crimes are not mitigated by the number of criminals who commit them. The rest of his argument is the same one the Nazis used- the “we really believed our sick, distorted ideology”.
    I read this week where Ben Stein sued Kyocera for dropping him as paid spokesperson because Stein’s denier credentials conflicted with Kyocera’s green corporate image.
    Stein had the temerity to claim that Kyocera was discriminating against him for his religious belief since “his religion teaches that Man doesn’t make the weather, God does”.
    Aside from the breathtaking cynicism embedded in that assertion, Stein has another problem, one that is shared by Svec and his ilk, and that is, no one cares what you believe or why you believe it.
    In fact this argument- that somehow a deeply held or religious belief exempts it’s holder from responsibility for his actions upon others, has been repeatedly rejected by the courts.
    It is, even today, nearly completely irrelevant to both civil and criminal charges- although it can play a role in mitigation- and for future juries, assaulted by the horrors of climate change reality, we can expect these kinds of pleadings to be non-starters.
    Mr Svec should go back to basics. Criminals and their actions define what laws will be. If you weaponize scientific opinion through falsification of same and you pervert the “dissemination of ideas” in such a way that it harms society on a epic scale never before seen by humanity, then society has a right and a duty to protect itself from these new assaults, and it will.
    This is just what we did at Nuremberg, however little those charged liked it and however unfair, in the abstract, it ultimately was.
    If the Mr. Svecs of the world find the legal frameworks they come to be prosecuted under oppressive and “fascist”, others who have been afflicted by Mr Svec’s and other denier’s actions are more likely to apprehend his “principled” protestations as just the wailing of criminal being separated from his “right” to commit crimes.
    For whatever reason, a certain kind of sociopathic personality type forever thinks that he has hatched the perfect plan to use the law to escape the law.
    History teaches us a different lesson. The law conforms to the exigencies placed upon it by the behavior of criminals and reforms itself so as to bring them to justice.
    The cigarette executives and their scientists and PR firms got away with mass murder because of the particular nature of their crimes and the isolation of their victims and mostly the political climate of the times they lived in.
    Svec, Koch, et. al should not use that result as a template for their strategy since none of those variables are going to work to their favor in the near future.

  7. Pingback: Responding to the Nomination for US Secretary of State the CEO of Exxon, a Company Which Funded the Morally Reprehensible Climate Change Disinformation Campaign and Politicians Who Are Climate Change Deniers | Ethics and Climate

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