Are climate obstructionists guilty of crimes against humanity?
Alarming reports from a wide variety of science-based and international studies keep coming, warning us of disasters that lie ahead if the world fails to make massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Again and again, we are confronted by the damage that is resulting from climate change: more intense and frequent extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, forest fires and heat waves; rising sea levels that threat- en the homes, lives and livelihoods of millions of people; and melting ice caps and permafrost, among others.
The consensus among science-based reports is that the path ahead is far worse: widespread food and water scarcity, increased exposure to diseases and allergic illnesses, economic decline, and damage to the “infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.”
As Noam Chomsky put it, “To describe these challenges as ‘extremely severe’ would be an error. The phrase does not capture the enormity of the kinds of challenges that lie ahead….”
Recognizing this, on Sept. 20, millions of people around the world engaged in a “Climate Strike,” the largest climate protest in history.
On Sept. 22, the Science Advisory Group to the U.N. Climate Action Summit released its grim “synthesis of latest climate change scientific information,” warning that current efforts to lower global emissions need to be “roughly tripled to be aligned with the 2-degree Celsius goal and increased fivefold to align with the 1.5-degree Celsius goal” adopted by the 2016 Paris
On Sept. 23, the U.N. Climate Action Summit was addressed by the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who declared in a trembling voice, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
Despite the dire urgency for action, the Climate Action Summit produced only modest pledges from a minority of nations. Not surprisingly, the United States was silent. President Trump did not participate in the summit, instead declaring at a separate U.N. gathering, “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.”
There are two fundamental issues here.
First, most nations of the world, many states and localities within the United States, even some corporations and the U.S. military, now recognize that we all face a profound global challenge. While several governments have taken preliminary steps toward altering their emissions, and even more have pledged to do so, these steps remain woefully inadequate if the world is to avoid cataclysmic outcomes.
The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the world’s developed capitalist economies, with China and the U.S. leading the way. By contrast, people in nations that have the least impact on climate change are most vulnerable to the worst of its effects. This climate injustice is only one manifestation of the inequalities and injustices built into the capitalist powers’ imperial exploitation of the “under-developed” world.
Each of the capitalist powers, in turn, is loathe to weaken its competitive position the other capitalist economies. Public policy in these nations is dominated by the interests of corporations and the wealthy — nowhere more than in the U.S.
This is the way capitalism works, which suggests how profound and systemic the changes will have to be if the world is to avoid catastrophe.
Second, the United States government, led by the Trump administration and its fossil-fuel producing allies, not only has done nothing to ameliorate climate change, it is blatantly accelerating the race to destruction.
Among his brazen attempts to flout the international scientific consensus, Trump has pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement; he promoted fossil fuel interests at the 2017 climate talks; he campaigned to end the “war on coal,” and subsequently his administration has moved to relax environmental coal plant emissions while weakening the federal government’s ability to set national standards. The administration removed restrictions on the leakage of methane from the nation’s oil and gas wells; it has taken steps to encourage coastal and Arctic oil drilling and exploration; and Trump announced he was revoking California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to enforce automobile emissions standards tougher than those of the federal government.
By itself, climate change has caused 150,000 deaths each year (according to findings of a team of health and climate scientists from the World Health Organization and the University of Wisconsin at Madison). That number could double in a decade, and has contributed to 5 million human illnesses every year. That would seem to suggest that those political actors and fossil fuel producers who resist the necessary changes are guilty of crimes against humanity.
vis a vis Ted Morgan is emeritus professor of political science at Lehigh University. He can be contacted at [email protected]high.edu.
Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks as she takes part during the Climate Strike on Sept. 20 in New York. Tens of thousands of protesters joined rallies on Friday as a day of worldwide demonstrations calling for action against climate change began ahead of a U.N. summit in New York.