Climate change as crime against humanity
If it puts millions of lives at stake, what else should we call it?
24 July, 2016
The term, in the meantime, has an actual legal definition: the Rome Statute describes crimes against humanity as widespread acts of murder, deportation, and other inhumane acts of similar character.
A vital question which we can no longer avoid is whether a willful rejection of mitigating climate change constitutes as a crime against humanity.
Let’s review the facts: There is not a single Academy of Science around the world which doubts the reality and the significance of climate change.
We know that if we are intent on extracting and burning all hydrocarbons currently in the ground, the median temperature will increase as much as 8 degrees centigrade as early as this century.
Nobody doubts that such a change will cause death and destruction of millions, and forced displacement of many more, starting with the poorest in the world.
Given the stakes, one would assume the greatest contributors to this epic calamity would be in a rush to eliminate, or at least reduce, their culpability and fingerprints.
Yet, we see that Qatar -- with the highest per capita emissions in the world -- some months ago, submitted their nationally determined plan, with no numeric targets, to lower their enormous emission levels.
They demonstrate additional temerity by claiming a developing country status, while having the highest per capita income in the world, $150,000 per person.
Or, take the two largest historical emitters, Chevron and ExxonMobil. No other entity is more responsible for the stock of GHGs currently in the atmosphere than these two corporations.
Yet, Chevron refuses to disclose the climate change research it funds, and ExxonMobil refuses to take on any numeric target to mitigate or sequester the emissions for which it is responsible.
Through acts of commission and omission, Qatar, Chevron, and ExxonMobil will cause the death and destruction of millions, so in what sense are they not criminals against humanity?
One objection may be that these actors are not sadists and are not out to kill millions. Yet, we need to ask when generic negligence becomes criminal negligence and criminal recklessness.
If someone drives a car at 120 km per hour blindfolded, and kills a dozen people at Times Square, we do not absolve their criminal responsibility because they did not intend to kill those specific 12 people.
Science tells us that what Qatar and other carbon majors do will lead to the deaths of millions, and the displacement of tens of millions.
There is no doubt that the carbon majors know exactly what they are doing and the consequences of their actions. If there ever were criminal gross negligence and recklessness, this is it. At this scale, it can only have one name: Crimes against humanity.
Another feature of our cognitive discomfort with calling the acts by Qatar, Chevron and ExxonMobil as crimes against humanity is that the media ecosystem which we all inhabit does not provide us with the names, faces, and stories of probable victims.
Subsistence farmers in Bangladesh and Niger, fishing communities in Senegal and Somalia, have not yet cracked the code of garnering the attention of the global media. Unless they are bearers of contagious viruses or AK-47s pointed at us, they are free to perish without a blip. Since they perish without our heed, no crimes, it seems, are committed.
Ordinarily, we would have expected human rights grandees such as Human Rights Watch to blow the horn about an impending crime against humanity. Sadly, climate change does not register at the HRW’s radar either.
Human Rights Watch did commit a grave error by devoting more attention and ink to three people which were water boarded and 71 who were abused at Abu Ghraid, than millions whose lives were destroyed because of an illegal and illegitimate war, because HRW thinks taking a position on the legality of a war precludes their ability to review the manner in which the war is being conducted.
The verdict of the international public opinion has passed them by on this issue, and if they fumble the ball on climate change because a pedantically-narrow rendition of crimes against humanity does not cover gross negligence and criminal recklessness around climate change, the costs to their credibility and the credulity of the human rights paradigm will be greater.
We should not forget that we got to crimes against humanity because the world had shared notions of laws of humanity and requirements of public conscience. We cannot conceive the letter of crime against humanity treaty in a manner against the requirements of the global conscience.
The final hurdle is the fact that carbon majors such as Qatar and ExxonMobil are not alone. There are several others who are less responsible than Qatar, but still emit more than their equitable share of the global carbon budget.
When the culprits are too numerous, criminal and moral responsibility becomes less clear.
Victims ought to have the first say on how to partition responsibility. The first step has to be for all those in Bangladesh et al -- who have had nothing to do with creating this global nightmare but has everything to lose -- to put Qatar et al on notice: Their acts of omission and commission are tantamount to savagery. They should either cease and desist, or face the consequences in the court of global public opinion, and all other competent courts.
If our current interpretations of the law do not cover a major and heinous act such the oblivious conduct of the leading climate change contributors, and if such acts will cause the death and destruction of -- albeit nameless and faceless -- millions, then it is our understanding of the law that needs an urgent update.
If human rights laws and lawyers fail to rise to the occasion, there will be other meta-narratives seeking to articulate and redress this grave injustice.