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According to experts, fossil fuel companies may face murder charges in the U.S. for causing deaths related to climate change.
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According to experts, fossil fuel companies may face murder charges in the U.S. for causing deaths related to climate change.

Annually, extreme temperatures claim 5 million lives. Additionally, 400,000 individuals succumb to hunger and disease caused by climate-related factors, and many more perish in floods and wildfires.

Scientists are advocating for a fresh legal concept that suggests fossil fuel corporations – as indicated by data – are primarily responsible for the rise in temperature on our planet and could potentially face charges of homicide for causing climate-related fatalities.

The unconventional proposal, initially suggested in the previous year by a non-profit organization focused on consumer rights called Public Citizen, might seem implausible. However, it has captured the attention of professionals and government representatives.

“We’ve been really excited to see the curiosity, interest and support these ideas have garnered from members of the legal community, including from both former and current federal, state and local prosecutors,” said Aaron Regunberg, senior policy counsel with Public Citizen’s climate program.

The researchers of Public Citizen are presently organizing gatherings at prestigious law schools such as Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, University of Chicago, and New York University to advocate for this concept.

“I fully endorse the initiative to pursue these criminals,” stated Christopher Rabb, a state representative in Pennsylvania, during a recent event at UPenn. The researchers have also noted that other government officials have shown interest in the matter privately.

The proposal, which will soon be published in the Harvard Law Review, stems in part from the growing body of evidence that the fossil fuel industry hid information about the dangers of fossil fuel use from the public. Those revelations have inspired 40 lawsuits alleging big oil has violated tort, product liability and consumer protection laws and engaged in racketeering.

The researchers suggest that fossil fuel companies should not only be subject to civil lawsuits, but also criminal charges.

According to David Arkush, who leads Public Citizen’s climate program and helped write the document on the plan, criminal law is how we establish and enforce moral standards in our society. He believes it’s crucial to acknowledge and prosecute the most destructive actions in human history as criminal.

The researchers suggest that there are numerous laws that could potentially classify the climate actions of fossil fuel companies as criminal. Some of the legal actions brought against oil companies, such as conspiracy and racketeering, also have criminal equivalents. Additionally, other laws could be utilized to deem conduct that may cause future harm, such as reckless endangerment, as criminal. However, the most severe consequences could come from the accusation of homicide for the sector’s actions, according to the researchers.

Damaged property lies scattered in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, in August 2023.View image in fullscreen

According to Public Citizen, the actions of oil companies to hinder climate action despite their knowledge of global warming could be considered as reckless or negligent homicide.

According to Arkush, it falls squarely within the legal guidelines for individuals to pursue these types of cases. After consulting with numerous criminal law experts, including former prosecutors and Department of Justice officials, there has been no dissenting opinions regarding our interpretation of the law.

According to Arkush, energy companies have faced homicide charges in the past for committing environmental crimes. In one instance, California prosecutors charged PG&E with manslaughter when a falling tree caused a 2018 wildfire in Paradise, resulting in fatalities. In another case, federal prosecutors charged BP with manslaughter for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, where 11 workers were killed and a massive oil spill occurred. Both companies admitted guilt and paid significant fines totaling billions of dollars.

Former Department of Justice prosecutor Cindy Cho expressed her initial doubt towards Public Citizen’s suggestion, titled “Climate Homicide: Prosecuting Big Oil for Climate Death.”

“After reading it, I found it to be more intriguing than I initially anticipated,” she stated.

Cho, who is currently a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, stated that while she now considers the legal proposal to be a potential option for prosecution, it is not a guaranteed success. She added that even if a district attorney or attorney general is open to pursuing charges against major corporations, they would require substantial resources and a specialized team.

“We require individuals who have knowledge in the field of science on the prosecution team, along with individuals skilled in homicide prosecution, and those familiar with complex, document-heavy white-collar prosecutions,” stated the speaker. “It is a challenging task to put together such a team.”

One more hurdle: While bringing charges for reckless or negligent homicide may not necessarily require plaintiffs to prove that oil companies intended to kill, in reality, that is something that many prosecutors and jurors will consider, according to her statement.

According to a statement from the source, establishing a direct link between an oil corporation and an individual’s death related to climate would be a challenging task. In the event of a person passing away in a hurricane, a court would need to take into account various factors that may have contributed to the severity of their situation, including their pre-existing health conditions and the strength of their residence. Attribution science may show the impact of climate change on the storm, but there are other elements to consider as well.

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“It’s possible to spend an hour here contemplating all the elements,” she stated. “And that’s not even considering the complex issue of proving that the hurricane was a result of climate change, and that the company’s actions were the sole catalyst.”

The study shows that some illegal accusations can be made without proving a direct cause. For example, Pennsylvania has a law that prosecutes not only causing but also potentially putting people in danger.

The researchers explain that there are challenges in bringing new charges against influential companies, both politically and culturally. However, if these criminal charges were to be successful, it could greatly impact fossil fuel companies and potentially prompt them to change their practices.

An aerial view of the fire line following the Smokehouse Creek fire in Fritch, Texas, in March 2024.

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A group of researchers highlight Purdue Pharma as an example. The company faced federal charges for its involvement in the opioid crisis and agreed to a settlement in 2020. The settlement mandated that the company restructure as a public benefit corporation with a focus on providing safe medication and decreasing addiction. The researchers propose that a similar settlement could be reached with oil companies, requiring them to prioritize the shift to clean energy and addressing previous damages.

At the UPenn event last week, Cho stated that the proposal offers an opportunity to depict criminals more accurately. Although criminal law typically focuses on individuals, numerous prosecutors are interested in pursuing “big defendants” who cause widespread harm.

She suggested that prosecutors should seriously contemplate employing the theory, particularly if they go into the investigation with an awareness of the daunting obstacles.

Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney, stated via email that his office will investigate potential legal options for holding polluters accountable.

State Senator Nikil Saval of Pennsylvania expressed interest in the proposal. He stated, “Fossil fuel companies and their leaders have committed offenses that have negatively impacted the people of Pennsylvania. They should face consequences for their actions.”

Marian Ryan, the attorney general for Middlesex County, MA, stated that it is crucial to recognize the significant effects of pollution and exposure to chemicals on people’s health and well-being.

She expressed her excitement to gain further knowledge about this study as our joint endeavors continue to tackle the overlap of public health and safety, referring to Public Citizen’s suggestion.

Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, which has supported civil suits against big oil, said the new theory “makes clear that efforts to hold the oil majors accountable are only beginning, and that lawyers will continue to pursue innovative legal strategies until the oil majors are finally held accountable for the massive harms they have caused”.

Sharon Eubanks, the chief attorney representing the United States in the victorious 2005 lawsuit against major tobacco companies, expressed her support for the new theory. She also remarked that her previous plan to file a lawsuit against these companies was met with doubt in a similar manner.

Many individuals believed we were foolish to pursue legal action against big tobacco for racketeering and doubted our chances of success,” stated the speaker. However, we prevailed in the end. I believe we need a similar mindset to address the pressing issue of climate change.

Source: theguardian.com