A Criminal Lexicon for Climate Change

«Every person on Earth today is living in a crime scene». Journalist Mark Hertsgaard referred to the criminal nature of the fossil fuel industry when he also stated that «the climate crisis is a crime that should be prosecuted. … The crime in question is the fossil fuel industry’s 40 years of lying about climate change.»

Exxon’s internal records show that by the late 1970s, their scientists were informing top executives that manmade warming was real, potentially catastrophic, and caused primarily by burning fossil fuels. Shell Oil was also aware of the dangers of climate change as shown in their 1986 report that stated that “the changes may be the greatest in recorded history.” A Shell 1988 report revealed that executives knew the role that Shell played in climate change. They were aware that fracking and obtaining oil from tar sands and the arctic would accelerate climate change, and they exploited tar sands and engaged in arctic oil exploration anyway. Furthermore, Shell’s 1991 film, Climate of Concern, warned about extreme weather, floods, famines, and climate refugees.

People are concerned about crime and therefore the climate change movement has realized it’s time to emphasize the criminal aspects of fossil fuel industries, particularly the petroleum industry.

Crimes such as “breaking and entering,” and “assault and battery” have traditionally been charged to individuals. However, in the court of public opinion, why couldn’t corporations and nations be rhetorically charged with these crimes? Also, why aren’t national and international laws enacted to charge corporations and nations with negligent homicide? Additionally, in both justice systems, legal judgments should mandate full restitution to all victims instead of charging relatively low fines which in no way pays for restoring the environment or people’s health.

Iit is not unreasonable to assert that specific industries are causing “criminal” climate change, thus, it is appropriate for climate activists to use various legal terms such as “breaking and entering,” as well as “assault and battery.”

The charge of “breaking and entering” usually refers to entering a building through force without authorization, but it can also include entering through fraud, threats, or collusion. Rather than using force without authorization, fossil fuel companies frequently enter resource areas with the authorization of the state which sometimes involves collusion. “Collusion” occurs when two or more parties secretly agree to defraud a third party of their rights. Also, instead of entering a specific building, fossil fuel companies enter areas that are rich with gas, coal, or oil.

“Fraud” refers to the deliberate misrepresentation of fact for the purpose of depriving someone of a valuable possession. It happens with those industries which tell the affected communities that they will provide jobs, which are frequently exaggerated in number and are often given to non-locals. Or with those industries not honest about the illness, death, and destruction of the environment that follows. In both situations, they tell the communities that they will clean up the affected areas and then default on their promises.

“Assault” is defined as the wrongful (not fair, just, or legal) act of causing someone to reasonably fear imminent harm, whereas “battery” is the actual wrongful act of physically harming someone. Water, air, and soil pollution caused by the extraction of gas, oil, and coal industries certainly result in fear for the future as well as actual damage. Even though all the fossil fuel companies could be perceived as equally guilty, it is the oil companies who have recently been taken to court. Victims of these crimes have recently won their legal cases against oil companies setting legal precedents for additional lawsuits and prosecutions.

It could be argued that Shell committed battery when it extracted oil and caused human suffering and environmental damage. Therefore, Shell has faced various court cases. In May 2021, the Dutch court ordered Shell to cut carbon emissions from its oil and gas products by 45% by 2030. In 2023, environmental lawyers from ClientEarth filed a lawsuit against the company’s directors in the high court of England. It is the first court case to attempt to hold company directors personally liable for failing to enact an adequate transition to net zero energy.

Shell has also been sued in London’s high court by 13,652 Nigerian individuals, as well as churches and schools. Shell is responsible for many oil spills in Nigeria. The victims are asking Shell to clean up oil pollution they caused and for compensation for contaminated drinking water, agricultural land, and the destruction of the fishing industry due to poisoned fish. According to the Nigerian journalist Orji Sunday «in 2013 researchers estimated that nearly 546 million gallons of oil spilled into the Niger Delta. A study reported in PNAS found that nearby oil spills that occur before conception increase neonatal mortality by 38.3 deaths per 1,000 births.»

Multinational corporations are not the only entities facing legal action as countries may soon be held liable for their negligence in combating climate change. Vanuatu, a small Pacific island country, has brought a resolution, supported by 105 countries, to the United Nations General Assembly. Vanuatu requested the International Court of Justice issue an advisory opinion on both the obligations of governments to protect the environment from human-caused climate change and the legal consequences of those obligations.

Lawsuits and criminal prosecutions against oil companies have already occurred and will certainly escalate. It is easily predictable that also natural gas and coal companies will soon see their legal expenses bills increase.

Lenore Hitchler

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    By: ONE Team

    ONE is a nonprofit magazine founded in 2014, dedicated to providing unbiased and independent commentary and reporting on energy and environment issues. ONE policy pursues the following principles: accuracy, integrity and transparency.
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