Man-made climate change happens. Man-made climate change kills a lot of people. It's going to kill a lot more. We have laws on the books to punish anyone whose lies contribute to people's deaths. It's time to punish the climate-change liars.
This is an argument that's just being discussed seriously in some circles. It was laid out earlier this month, with all the appropriate caveats, by Lawrence Torcello, a philosophy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
There is a clear precedent, Torcello says, in L'Aquila, Italy, where six seismologists were convicted of manslaughter in connection with a 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people. The scientists weren't convicted because they failed to predict an earthquake; no one can make such a prediction with reliable precision. But they were convened to study a series of tremors the week before the quake, and tacitly signed off on a government official's public message that "the situation looks favorable" and residents should chill out with some wine.
Their "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information," the court found, contributed to the residents' fatal lack of preparations for bigger tremors.
This is one reason why in the coastal South, where I'm from, you rarely hear TV weathermen and laboratory meteorologists dismiss a tropical storm as no big deal, especially after Katrina. Hurricane season is a big deal, and residents are encouraged to take safety precautions, to prevent a weather pattern from becoming a life-altering nightmare. Constant vigilance is a very American response to external threats.
Except, that is, where climate change is concerned. It is one of the rare threats to safety and stability where a large swath of U.S. commercial culture has marshaled tons of resources to tell Americans: It's not happening. Don't sweat it. It's no big deal.
Those people are criminally negligent. As Torcello puts it:
Imagine if in L'Aquila, scientists themselves had made every effort to communicate the risks of living in an earthquake zone. Imagine that they even advocated for a scientifically informed but costly earthquake readiness plan.
If those with a financial or political interest in inaction had funded an organised campaign to discredit the consensus findings of seismology, and for that reason no preparations were made, then many of us would agree that the financiers of the denialist campaign were criminally responsible for the consequences of that campaign. I submit that this is just what is happening with the current, well documented funding of global warming denialism.
Attempts to deceive the public on climate change, and to consequently block any public policy to tackle it, contribute to roughly 150,000 deaths a year already—Torcello again:
More deaths can already be attributed to climate change than the L'Aquila earthquake and we can be certain that deaths from climate change will continue to rise with global warming. Nonetheless, climate denial remains a serious deterrent against meaningful political action in the very countries most responsible for the crisis.
Those denialists should face jail. They should face fines. They should face lawsuits from the classes of people whose lives and livelihoods are most threatened by denialist tactics.
Let's make a clear distinction here: I'm not talking about the man on the street who thinks Rush Limbaugh is right, and climate change is a socialist United Nations conspiracy foisted by a Muslim U.S. president on an unwitting public to erode its civil liberties.
You all know that man. That man is an idiot. He is too stupid to do anything other than choke the earth's atmosphere a little more with his Mr. Pibb burps and his F-150's gassy exhaust. Few of us believers in climate change can do much more—or less—than he can.
Nor am I talking about simple skeptics, particularly the scientists who must constantly hypo-test our existing assumptions about the world in order to check their accuracy. That is part and parcel of the important public policy discussion about what we do next.
But there is scientific skepticism... and there is a malicious, profiteering quietist agenda posturing as skepticism. There is uncertainty about whether man-made climate change can be stopped or reversed... and there is the body of purulent pundits, paid sponsors, and corporate grifters who exploit the smallest uncertainty at the edges of a settled science.
I'm talking about Rush and his multi-million-dollar ilk in the disinformation business. I'm talking about Americans for Prosperity and the businesses and billionaires who back its obfuscatory propaganda. I'm talking about public persons and organizations and corporations for whom denying a fundamental scientific fact is profitable, who encourage the acceleration of an anti-environment course of unregulated consumption and production that, frankly, will screw my son and your children and whatever progeny they manage to have.
Those malcontents must be punished and stopped.
Deniers will, of course, fuss and stomp and beat their breasts and claim this is persecution, this is a violation of free speech. Of course, they already say that now, when judges force them into doing penance for comparing climate scientists to child-rapist and denial poster-boy Jerry Sandusky.
But First Amendment rights have never been absolute. You still can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater. You shouldn't be able to yell "balderdash" at 10,883 scientific journal articles a year, all saying the same thing: This is a problem, and we should take some preparations for when it becomes a bigger problem.
Willful, profiteering public deniers of climate change can compare themselves to Galileo all they want, pretending that they're voices of sanity in a cruel wilderness. But Galileo had science on his side. He had a telescope aimed at the cosmos. Climate deniers have their heads jammed in the sand... or in a barrel of money.
There is a lot we can do societally, now, not just in terms of reducing our contributions to the global climate's maladies but in terms of preparing for its effects: rising seas and temperatures. Changes in crops and food supplies. Increased population density and disease. There is a chance to make society safer and smarter.
If you have all of this information at your command and that reform project still scares you, if you think it necessarily entails a sacrifice of your personal freedom that you cannot brook, fine. That's a debate we can have. But if you are actively trying to deny people the tools they need to inform themselves, to protect themselves against a scientifically proven threat to life and limb, you shouldn't be part of the debate. You should be punished for your self-serving malice.
[Photo credit: Vadim Petrakov/Shutterstock; graphics: NASA]