Menu Menu

Should fossil fuel firms be charged with homicide?

Legal experts are preparing to publish a paper in next year’s Harvard Environmental Law Review. They will argue that fossil fuel companies should be charged with homicide for the deaths they’ve caused by accelerating the climate crisis.

The booming fossil fuel industry continues to be the number one cause of the worsening environmental crisis.

Individuals running these companies have been aware of their actions’ consequences for decades, yet have shown no signs of stopping. In fact, oil and gas ventures have continued to ramp up worldwide, earning top energy company CEOs’ salaries in the billions.

All of this has come at the price of a warming planet, an unpredictable global weather system, mass forced migration, the loss of human lives, and diminished biodiversity. Do they really think they’ll be let off the hook?

Legal action has already been taken against major fossil fuel companies, but authors of the upcoming Harvard Environmental Law Review (HELR) believe that the outcome of these environmental lawsuits have not matched the seriousness of the crimes they address.

Since civil and regulatory rulings are inadequate for holding fossil fuel companies liable for their actions, the authors of the HELR will attempt to build a case based on homicide – stamping the industry as guilty for hundreds of thousands of climate-related deaths.

Why haven’t past lawsuits been effective enough?

Let’s first take a look at a recent legal challenge one fossil fuel company has faced.

Last month, Shell’s board of directors was sued by the environmental law charity ClientEarth. The organisation made claims that the fossil fuel company had ‘failed to properly manage risks associated with the climate crisis.’

George Washington University law professor, Donald Braman and David Arkush, a director at the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, write in the Harvard Environmental Law Review that these legal accusations only scratch the surface of their culpability.

They say this because scientists at ExxonMobil had conducted research in the 1970s that predicted their projects would cause rapid global heating with ‘shocking skill and accuracy’. Rather than slow operations, they strengthened ties with political players to campaign for and secure novel fossil fuel projects.

Even as climate change slowly veered to the front of public consciousness, Shell, ExxonMobil, and the like have continued to cover up or downplay these realities.  They’ve stayed silent about their climate knowledge while denying the legitimacy of anti-fossil fuel campaigns launched by scientists, activists, and environmentalists.

All of this, of course, has been a tactic to maximise personal profit at the cost of all life on Earth – a cost that is expected to rise to 250,000 human deaths annually between 2030 and 2050.

Homicide wouldn’t be a radical accusation

Looking at the money hoarded by fossil fuel companies will paint a damning and infuriating picture.

Take, for example, the fact that ExxonMobil made £44.8 billion in profits last year – the most it’s ever made in its history. Worse yet, only 5 percent of that massive profit was reinvested in clean energy projects.

Meanwhile, governments around the world were forced to empty their pockets, spending nearly £800 billion on fossil fuel subsidies in order to help citizens pay for their skyrocketing bills as the energy crisis raged on.

When you look at the situation from this angle, you’ll quickly realise that virtually everyone is going broke by paying for energy from fossil fuels as our planet sends life-threatening signals for us to stop burning them.

This is a disturbing display of greed and insanity on the part of people running major fossil fuel companies.

While the HELR is still being drafted, it could spark a monumental move towards enforcing maximum legal punishment for top decision-makers in the oil and gas industry.

In the end, it’s hard to see homicide charges as a radical accusation when these companies continued to operate despite knowing that the continuation of their work would destroy our Earth and all life within it.

Let’s hope the HELR’s research team can find more damning revelations that bolster their legal arguments. It’s time to stop this madness.