We define as having criminal intent any person who calculates that there is a definite possibility their actions will result in harm to others. Equally, we define as criminally negligent anyone who is aware that an individual is likely to harm others but who ignores the situation. In the not-too-distant future will politicians who intentionally ignore global climate change, or who obstruct action to implement conscientious policies to prevent deterioration of climate conditions, be deemed criminally negligent? The scale of death and destruction resulting from global warming may potentially exceed losses due to genocides and world wars. We need discussion of legal and moral accountability for gross negligence when it comes to destruction at this level.
Given the tools at our disposal to measure the adverse climate impact of human behavior and the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists about the causes of global warming any conscious choice to deny it and refuse to take action must be considered extremely risky behavior and, I believe, criminal negligence.
As record-breaking floods, fires, and drought affect more regions of the world, the risk of not just more loss of life but massive and sustained loss of life becomes statistically inevitable. How any one of us responds to the risk of harm to others defines whether we are morally clear or morally clouded. Here is a simple analogy about our moral and legal responsibility for taking risks:
You take little Jenny to school and you are met by the principal who says his electrician tells him the school's electrical wiring is old and faulty and there is significant chance it will overheat in places and cause a fire. The principal, who has no expertise in inspecting wiring, says the electrician doesn't know what he is talking about. Any school official or parent who knowingly sent their child into that school would be held criminally negligent if it caught fire.
The same is true for climate change; we have to make morally coherent choices based on the information currently available to us if we don't want to be held accountable as accessories to what may be the crime of the century.
The Pentagon, acting in a responsible way, has done its own scenario planning for very large-scale social and political chaos arising from climate change disruptions. The military knows you pay attention to risk. But our government and so many others have drifted into an immoral paralysis on this issue.
I write and teach about human rights and global peacebuilding and it's very clear when governments are responsible for crimes against humanity. It is becoming increasingly clear that climate disruptions are going to increase global conflicts over resources, food and water, and create climate refugees. Global warming will destroy any chances of global peace. In international law we have established an international criminal court and war crimes tribunals to try those found guilty of crimes against humanity. But who will be held accountable for inaction on global warming and how will they be brought to justice?
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