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Jailing Climate Deniers

Climate

Hysterics at the right wing think tanks and their acolytes at The Washington Times, talk radio and the blogosphere, are foaming in apoplexy because I supposedly suggested that "all climate deniers should be jailed." Last week, that canard leapt from the wingnut echo chamber into New York magazine, which reported, under Jonathan Chait's by-line, that "Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. shares the opinion that climate denial should be criminalized." Chait was quoting the National Review's Kevin Williamson who made that outlandish claim at one of Heritage Foundation's annual "Conference for Kooks." Of course I never said that. I support the First Amendment which makes room for any citizen to, even knowingly, spew far more vile lies without legal consequence.

I do, however, believe that corporations which deliberately, purposefully, maliciously and systematically sponsor climate lies should be given the death penalty. This can be accomplished through an existing legal proceeding known as “charter revocation." State Attorneys General can invoke this remedy whenever corporations put their profit-making before the “public welfare."

In 1998, New York State's Republican Attorney General, Dennis Vacco successfully invoked the “corporate death penalty" to revoke the charters of two non-profit tax-exempt tobacco industry front groups, The Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR). The two groups Vacco annulled were creatures of a decade long campaign funded principally by tobacco giant, Brown & Williamson to avoid costly health regulations that would diminish the profit margins of an industry that was killing one out of five of its customers. “Doubt is our Product," explained Brown & Williamson's notorious 1969 memo outlining the reptilian communications strategy that hatched its front groups.

Vacco complained that these companies were “[feeding] the public a pack of lies in an underhanded effort to promote smoking so as to addict America's kids." Attorney General Vacco seized their assets and distributed them to public institutions.

Laws in every state maintain that companies that fail to comply with prescribed standards of corporate behavior may be either dissolved or, in the case of foreign corporations, lose their rights to operate within that state's borders. These rules can be quite expansive and, in contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court's ­­­­recent rulings on campaign finance law, companies, under state laws, enjoy far less protection than human beings. New York, for example, prescribes corporate death whenever a company fails to “serve the common good" and “to cause no harm."

Just as Big Tobacco funded the now moribund CTR and the Tobacco Institute to systematically deceive the public about the perils of cigarettes, the carbon cronies, with far larger profits at stake, have funded an army of front groups to persuade the public that global warming is a hoax.

For more than a decade, petroleum industry behemoths lead by Koch Industries and ExxonMobil, have waged a successful multi-million dollar propaganda blitz to mislead the public about global warming using the same techniques honed by Big Tobacco in its campaign to hoodwink the public about smoking.

In their efforts to impede state, national and international efforts to protect humans from the destructive climate chaos, both companies have engaged in massive spending sprees purchasing phony “junk" science devised to undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming. Between 1997 and 2013, ExxonMobil, pumped more than $29.9 million into an elaborate network of more than 75 front groups to manufacture skepticism about the oncoming climate catastrophe. At the same time, Koch Industries has piped at least $67,042,064 to more than 50 groups that play central roles in the Koch-funded offensive against climate science.

Two decades after Brown & Williamson's notorious “Doubt is our Product" memo, the oil industry launched its own anti-science juggernaut replicating Big Tobacco's and utilizing many of the same corrupt scientists and PR firms. Two secret memos dictated the blueprint for Big Carbon's anti-science offensive. The American Petroleum Institute (API)—lobbyist for ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips—was the spear tip of a multi-million dollar campaign to confound American citizens about climate science by manipulating the media. On April 3, 1998, API laid out its “Global Climate Science Communications action plan," the detailed blueprint of “tactics and strategies" for deceiving the American people and press by sewing doubts about climate science. The API team would create front groups and “educate" editorial boards and corporate CEOs to challenge “prevailing scientific wisdom." Under “recruiting and training," API outlines its plan for tapping neophyte—“read malleable"—scientists and tame journalists (“e.g. John Stossel," the memo suggests) to bamboozle the public. “Victory will be achieved," API promises, “when average citizens and the media recognize uncertainties in climate science;" recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the "conventional wisdom."

Four years later in 2002, conservative pollster Frank Luntz in an influential memo to President George Bush and oil patch lawmakers, applauded the industry for the success of the API campaign. “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community." Nevertheless, he warned Big Carbon's indentured servants on Capitol Hill “the science [is closing against us] but is not yet closed." He advised, “therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."

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Over the next dozen years, a string of front groups conducted the deceptive anti-science campaign outlined in the API's 1998 plan and Luntz's 2002 memo and funded primarily by ExxonMobil and Koch.

Among the groups that have received millions from Exxon and Koch Industries are the Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, Cooler Heads Coalition, Global Climate Coalition, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, Heartland Institute, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), George C. Marshall Institute, State Policy Network, Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Like the Tobacco Institute and CTR, these front groups are snake pits for sociopaths. Run by venomous carbon industry toadies, they stable a craven menagerie of propaganda wizards, slick biostitutes, tobacco scientists, snake oil hucksters, voodoo economists and other so called “experts" employed to publish beguiling studies, appear on TV and radio, and write deceptive articles critiquing the “flawed science" predicting climate change. They broadcast zany theories to bolster policies that encourage increased energy consumption, torpedo renewable energy, attack pollution rules, maintain Big Carbon's obscene government subsidies and, in general, provide the philosophical underpinnings for a system of cushy socialism for the “dirty energy" tycoons and bitter, savage capitalism for the rest of mankind.

For example, CEI, which describes itself as being “a leader in the fight against the global warming scare," spent years denying that warming was real, and then, as the tsunami of evidence made that position untenable, pivoted to the more defensible posture that human beings are not causing it. CEI has more recently beat its final retreat to the terminal default position that global warming is great because it will “create a milder, greener, more prosperous world." The floods, fires, drought, rising oceans, disappearing ice caps, melting glaciers, drowned cities and refugees have not exactly been “mild." But things have been prosperous and “green"—if one means greenbacks—for the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil, who are enjoying the biggest profits in world history. “You're Welcome, Planet Earth!"

AEI, one of the richest and most influential think tanks in the U.S.—and the high priest of climate denial—offered a $10,000 bounty in 2006 to any scientist or economist who could produce an article undermining the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The IPCC report was the most comprehensive review yet of climate change science representing the scientific consensus among thousands of climate scientists comprising the leading and most prestigious and scientific stars from more than 130 participating nations.

Any state attorney general with the will, resolve and viscera to stand to up to the dangerous and duplicitous corporate propagandists, has authority to annul the charters of each of these mercenary merchants of deceit. An attorney general with particularly potent glands could revoke the charters not just oil industry surrogates like AEI and CEI, he or she could also withdraw state operating authority from the soulless, nationless oil companies that have sponsored “Big Lie" campaigns and force them to sell their in-state assets to more responsible competitors.

Koch Industries and ExxonMobil have particularly distinguished themselves as candidates for corporate death. No other companies have worked harder or spent more money to impede the government from taking action on global warming to safeguard public welfare. Both companies have employed artifice on a massive scale and spent tens of millions of dollars to purchase fraudulent junk science. The greedy, immoral, anti-social pathology behind ExxonMobil and Koch's mendacious crusade is even starker given the open acknowledgment since 2007 by the other major oil companies including Shell, Chevron and BP, that burning oil is causing climate change.

Though they like to invoke patriotic themes and drape themselves in the flag, the oil barons have persistently demonstrated their enthusiasm for putting corporate profits ahead of the public welfare.

“I'm not a U.S. company," Exxon's legendary former CEO, Lee Raymond told his board, “and I don't make decisions on what is good for the U.S.." These companies are not friends to America. They are enemies of mankind.

The notion that a state attorney general might actually execute one of these villains is not a pipe dream. State attorneys general have historically shown a willingness to stand up to American democracy's biggest corporate bullies including, Wall Street, Big Tobacco, coal burning utilities and the oil titans even in eras, like the present, when corporate money has subverted our democracy and extracted the spinal cords from most politicians. It was 46 courageous state attorneys generals who brought down the cigarette companies. It was nine northeastern state attorneys general who sued the coal burning utilities for damages to their citizens from airborne pollutants. And it was state attorneys general in New York, Ohio and Texas who, during the Gilded Age, dismantled the Standard Oil octopus, and restored economic democracy to America. That deadly Frankenstein monster, now reassembled and resurrected as ExxonMobil, poses an even greater threat today to our historical values and quality of life.

Let's all hope for and vote for a home state Attorney General candidate who promises to stand up against carbon's duplicitous proxies and fight for truth, justice and democracy, and to provide our children with safe, healthy, dignified and wholesome communities and the prosperity that should not be exclusive to the Koch Brothers and ExxonMobil.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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