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?