climate change social justice

Is climate change denial a crime against humanity?

In What we’re fighting for now is each other, which I reviewed yesterday, there’s a statement from author Wen Stephenson that I found myself underlining. It’s in a section where he argues that the barriers to preventing a climate crisis are not technological or financial, but political. There are power structures out to prevent serious action because they know it will not be to their advantage.

When we stop and think about how serious climate change is, that it really is a matter of life and death for some, it is hard to argue with Wen Stephenson’s conclusions about the denial of climate change:

“Given what we know and have known for decades about climate change, to deny the science, deceive the public, and willfully obstruct any serious response to the climate catastrophe is to allow entire countries and cultures to disappear. It is to rob people, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives – and their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives. For profit. And for political power.

There’s a word for this: these are crimes. They are crimes against the earth, and they are crimes against humanity.”

Those are unusually strong words on the subject of denial. It’s usually discussed in terms of scientific uncertainty or a psychological suppressing of information that scares us. But if we’re talking about the deliberate actions that Stephenson describes, then I think there’s a serious case to answer.

He’s not the only one saying so. Jeffrey Sachs wrote last year that “President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and others who oppose action to address human-induced climate change should be held accountable for climate crimes against humanity.” Moral philosopher Lawrence Torcello warns that “we can’t pretend we don’t know the nature of what is unfolding. We are witnessing a crime against humanity – and the potential prelude to future genocide.” The Wallace Global Fund, which funds legal cases against ‘climate crimes’, believes “we are on the brink of a revolution in climate advocacy.”

Climate justice is still a marginal idea in many ways, but some of the court cases brought against the fossil fuel companies may begin to change that. I expect they will be drawn out over many years, but the legal challenge to climate denial is only just beginning. I suspect it is only a matter of time before arguments for reparations become a major international issue again.

There is a growing recognition that the language around climate change – including the term climate change itself – has been too mild. It “sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity”, as the Guardian noted last week in new advice to its journalists. Is it time we called climate denial what it is too?


  1. Sitting on you moral high horse spouting the language of conspiracy. Really not a good look. Especially as conspiracy theories, especially ones involving ‘private wealth’ only end one way. At least you would fit in when you talk to Labour.

    It isn’t a conspiracy, it isn’t a crime. It isn’t a cabal of capitalist sitting around deciding to burn the world to protect their ‘power structures’. It is the billions of choices by millions of people trying to have a better life for themselves and their families.

    Anti capitalists and those on the radical left can’t conceive that the free market, capitalism is a spontaneous organic thing that develops and organises itself without a controlling entity. So they are prone to conspiracy theories to explain the world. Sadly the human mind seems drawn to them so you should work hard to see through them. When we get self righteous our guard falls. This is why Corbynistas are so susceptible and one of many reads why I warned against taking a morally superior line.

  2. The talk of conspiracy theories and cabals is your language, not mine. I don’t see any conspiracy theories here. I do see fossil fuel companies that have been proven to have deliberately misled the public. No point in arguing about it – there are cases in court right now against them, and all the evidence will be presented there.

    I do think you might want to pause and consider what you’re railing against here by the way. I’m talking about deliberately deceiving the public in order to delay action on climate change, leading to people ultimately losing their homes and livelihoods, maybe even their lives. Are you sure you want to leap to the defense of that?

    1. Quoting Wen Stephenson then denying your are talking about conspiracies is an odd juxtaposition. He’s all about Big Oil and shadowy rich people working to do down Climate Activists.

      Now I’m not denying that oil companies have disputed evidence for climate change. All organisations react against news that will damage them. But where the conspiracy talk comes from is the idea that the lack of action on this is entirely down to lobbying by Big Oil. Its the conspirist mindset that there has to be something in control: Big Oil, the Masons, you know who. It misses the big point. The main obstacle against action is the biggest lobby in the world; The Voters.

      It’s been a comforting trope to the Left and environmentalists (in many cases one and the same) that the People would agree with them if only Big Business, The Media, Right wingers etc didn’t cloud their minds with lies (Lies because only the Good speak the Truth). Because the People are ignorant and stupid. We heard that after the election of Trump, after Brexit and now after ScoMo’s surprise re-election in Oz.

      So the Left/Environmentalists fall to their Post Modernist ideas that its all narrative and they must stop the People hearing a different narrative to the one they want. Hence the urge to sue oil companies. To call for the media not to broadcast even those who seek market solutions to Climate chnage. To create a new verbal crime of ‘Climate Denialist’ to hope to borrow some of the moral standing of exposing those you deny the Holocaust. It the idea of no platforming. And its all acceptable because they think they are more moral than the People.

      1. I agree that all of us who use petrol and plastics (the vast majority) are still voting halfheartedly with our pocket books FOR the industries we deplore. However, there really are people who will, for example, write letters to the editor of city newspapers with misleading “personal opinions” that are in fact paid pieces. We exposed one while volunteering with Citizens Climate Lobby. Think tanks funded by big oil deliberately make their funding sources hard to track down in order to fool people into thinking they are impartial. When they are anything but. That fits the definition of a “conspiracy of silence.”

  3. You’re still on about conspiracy, which is irrelevant. So are all your comments about leftists, no-platforming, etc. None of that is in my post, which is about justice.

    So again, last chance to put yourself on the right side of history here. When fossil fuel companies deceive the public in order to increase their profits, at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable people – is that morally acceptable or unacceptable?

    1. You know many environmentalists and indeed some scientists have purposely lied to the public to further their cause on climate change. Is that acceptable because they are on the ‘right side of history’?

      Can we actually know what the right side of history is? I guess you claim to as you are more moral. Those Victorian colonialists thought they were on the right side of history too.

      As your side think you are more moral and just it justifies bullying.

      You are trying something similar here by trying to force me to agree with you or otherwise i’m On the side of nasty oil companies. Only your side is moral and if I don’t agree with you I’m immoral. You have been making my previous points for me.

      1. All bullying or lying is wrong. It’s about the behaviour, not about ‘good’ people or ‘bad’ people. There’s no such thing. We’re all compromised and riddled with hypocrisy, that’s sadly par for the course with humanity. This language of nasty people and good people is yours, not mine. What I’m writing about is criminal behaviour by fossil fuel companies.

        So I don’t see why it’s so difficult to answer my question. When fossil fuel companies deceive the public in order to increase their profits, at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable people – is that morally acceptable or unacceptable?

        1. I’ve already said I don’t deny oil companies disputed evidence of climate change. If they lied that’s wrong but ultimately that didn’t matter. The blame for slow action in tackling climate change is only marginally (at best) down to the oil companies and any lies they might have spread.

          Your framing is their actions are principally to blame for delay to climate action. That’s the conspiracy mind set, shadowy powerful organisation pulling the strings behind the curtain. As Richard Hofstadter said in his essay on paranoid style of politics written over 50 years ago ‘Very often the enemy is held to posses some especially effective source of power. He controls the press, he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind’. I mean that’s Wen Stephenson describing Exxon.

  4. I don’t think industry denial is principally to blame. It’s one piece of a huge jigsaw of reasons, and as a regular reader you know perfectly well that I write about climate change from all sorts of angles.

    If the fossil fuel companies lied, which you acknowledge that they did, and that lying is wrong, which we agree on, then why not address that in the courts?

    1. Should we address every episode of lying in the courts? Why single out the oil companies. Greenpeace and FoE aren’t on nodding terms with the truth. Should we sue them too? Where would it end?

      1. I think you’ll find Greenpeace and FoE are answerable to the courts the same as anyone else is, and the internet will serve you examples of lawsuits brought against them if you care to look.

        I’m not aware of anything Greenpeace or FoE have done that will result in potentially millions of people losing their homes, livelihoods and possibly lives, and affecting the liveability of the earth for generations to come. If you stop and think about it, your what-aboutary and claims of moral equivalence are preposterous. But then I know how much you enjoy an argument on the internet, so I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you don’t actually live by the kind of moral code you espouse online.

        To recap, I’ve asked whether or not climate denial amounts to a crime against humanity, and argued that fossil fuel companies should be held to account for delilberate deception. In reply you’ve said that I’m a conspiracy theorist, a leftist and on a high horse. This line of argument clearly hasn’t changed my views one iota, and neither have I apparently influenced your views at all. So why keep arguing? I’m off on holiday anyway, and won’t be able to reply.

        Being blase about climate justice is a privilege. I think you should be aware of that. Many people don’t have that luxury, and their numbers are growing by the day. If you have children or grandchildren, they may be among them. And here you are spending your time arguing against climate justice on the internet.

        Your prerogative.

        However, if you’re going to waste my time on an argument like this again, I’d like to ask something in return. Can you use your real name? I’m putting my name to my comments, which holds me accountable to anything false or stupid that I might say. I’d like the same courtesy in return. Are you prepared to argue against climate justice on the internet under your real name? And if not, why not?

        1. And you say the oil companies should be held accountable for lying when you accept they had little influence over policy outcomes. So where is the loss? Why are you so angry about something irrelevant?

          My name is Martin Sharp but I prefer my pseudonym. In today’s censorious climate virtual lynch mobs try to stifle debate so if you want honesty it often only comes out anonymously.

          Anyway, have a good holiday.

  5. Thanks, I have had a good holiday. And thanks for putting your name to your comments.

    I don’t say the oil companies have little influence, I say that industry denial is not the primary driver of climate change. It’s an important factor, one of many – but as a criminal factor it should be treated as such. Lies that lead to people losing everything are always serious. If we don’t get angry about that, what should we get angry about?

    No lynch mobs here, anyway.

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