Among the great crimes of the 20th century the most enduring will surely prove to be human disruption of the Earth’s climate. The effects of human-induced climate change are apparent now and will become severe this century, but the warming is expected to last thousands of years. That is so because extra carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for a very long time, but also because changes in the climate are triggering changes in the Earth System as a whole, changes that cannot be undone.
If it is a crime to transform the Earth into a hot and less habitable place what are the offences committed by those responsible? A panel of eminent jurists this year published some principles to guide us. The Oslo Principles note that “all States and enterprises have an immediate moral and legal duty to prevent the deleterious effects of climate change”.
Corporations causing harm to people through their emission of greenhouse gases may be subject to tort law and may be sued for damages. The Principles observe that States are obliged to protect human life and the integrity of the biosphere through an existing network of national and international obligations.
Looking back on the last two decades of denial, delay and obstruction, there have been perhaps two hundred individuals who should be held most culpable, if not by the courts then by history, for failing to prevent harm or of obstructing others from taking measures to prevent harm.
Above all, in denying the evidence or failing to take action commensurate with the known danger, these individuals have been violating their duty to the truth. When something of immense importance is at stake—and what could be more important than the survival of the most vulnerable of the Earth’s citizens in the face of famine, flood, and epidemic – we owe an absolute allegiance to the truth, and must put aside any ideological or financial discomfort that the truth may cause.
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