A paper recently accepted for publication in a Harvard University academic journal lays out a legal argument for prosecuting fossil fuel companies with homicide, citing the impacts of carbon emissions and the industry’s alleged disinformation campaign.
The paper – titled “Climate Homicide: Prosecuting Big Oil For Climate Deaths” and set to be published in the Harvard Environmental Law Review in 2024 – identifies how prosecutors may use existing homicide laws, as opposed to civil and regulatory remedies, to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for conduct that “endangers much or all of the public.”
“Prosecutors regularly bring homicide charges against individuals and corporations whose reckless or negligent acts or omissions cause unintentional deaths, as well as those whose misdemeanors or felonies cause unintentional deaths,” the paper states.
“Fossil fuel companies learned decades ago that what they produced, marketed, and sold would generate ‘globally catastrophic’ climate change,” it adds. “Rather than alert the public and curtail their operations, they worked to deceive the public about these harms and to prevent regulation of their lethal conduct.”
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While the paper’s authors – David Arkush, a director at advocacy group Public Citizen, and Donald Braman, a law professor at George Washington University – acknowledge that fossil fuel companies have never been charged with homicide, they say the case for doing so is “increasingly compelling” and argue that their lethal harm may soon become “unparalleled in human history,” which is rife with genocides, wars and other atrocities.
Arkush and Braman specifically point to alleged activity from oil and gas companies in developing so-called disinformation and political influence campaigns to shield themselves from scrutiny over the harms of carbon emissions. Such activity would meet a core requirement – conduct undertaken with a culpable mental state that substantially contributes to or accelerates death – of a mass homicide prosecution.
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“Perhaps most importantly, if [fossil fuel companies] continue to fight speedy reductions in the harms they are generating, and if they continue to obstruct or delay state and federal regulation and civil suits designed to reduce the lethal impact of their conduct, then homicide prosecutions may prove necessary to prevent the escalating threat that their lethal conduct poses to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of potential victims in the United States,” the paper states.
The paper also addresses how the legal system may go about handling homicide prosecution cases, saying imprisonment and abruptly ending fossil fuel production wouldn’t be reasonable objectives. Instead, prosecutors may consider restructuring oil and gas companies as public benefit corporations and be forced to phase out fossil fuel production.
“[Fossil fuel companies], on this account, could be restructured in much the same way, reducing the production and distribution of fossil fuels at the fastest pace feasible, but not so fast as to cause harm, while protecting displaced workers and local economies and investing in the development and deployment of clean energy,” the paper continues.
“By working to defeat alternative energy competition, as well as defeat policies that would diminish or disincentivize fossil fuels or promote alternatives, [fossil fuel companies] have kept the United States dependent on their product, and they bear significant responsibility for our inability to shift to alternative energy more quickly.”
When asked about the paper, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, the largest fossil fuel industry group in the U.S., noted that companies have worked to decrease their environmental impacts in recent decades.
“The record of the past two decades demonstrates that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable, reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while substantially reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” the spokesperson told Fox News Digital. “Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”
The paper comes as Democrat-run cities and states are increasingly taking up legal efforts to punish fossil fuel companies for their alleged environmental damage and deception campaigns.
Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., New York City, Baltimore, Honolulu and San Francisco are among the many state and city governments actively involved in litigation against the industry over the issue.
“Based on their own research, these companies understood decades ago that their products were causing climate change and would have devastating environmental impacts down the road,” New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in October.
“They went to great lengths to hide the truth and mislead the people of New Jersey and the world,” he said. “In short, these companies put their profits ahead of our safety. It’s long overdue that the facts be aired in a New Jersey court and the perpetrators of the disinformation campaign pay for the harms they’ve caused.”
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