2018 Camp Fire (image: NASA)
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Legal experts are exploring the possibility of charging major oil companies with climate homicide, as their actions have contributed to thousands of climate change-related deaths. The paper, entitled “Climate Homicide: Prosecuting Big Oil For Climate Deaths“, is published in Harvard Environmental Law Review. Oil companies have been aware of the risks of climate change for decades. In 1991, Shell produced an educational film called “Climate of Concern” warning of climate change risks, including extreme weather, floods, famines, and climate refugees. Despite this early knowledge, Shell and other oil companies continued investing in fossil fuels and lobbying against climate protection measures.

Legal scholars David Arkush and Donald Braman now have proposed that big oil companies could be prosecuted for “climate homicide” due to their contributions to climate change and the resulting deaths. They argue that there are no legal or factual barriers to such prosecutions and that attribution science can be used to establish a link between the actions of fossil fuel companies and climate-related deaths.

Attribution science and its role in climate homicide charges

Attribution science is an emerging field that links extreme weather events and related deaths to climate change. It has been used to support arguments for holding fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change impacts. Critics argue that proving a causal connection to climate change is difficult due to its diffuse nature, and oil companies could argue that their “fractional contribution” to global emissions is minimal compared to countries like China.

However, Arkush and Braman believe there’s no bar to prosecution if a defendant engaged in conduct generating lethal risk. They argue that criminal courts would defer to jurors to decide accountability and that charges for climate malfeasance aren’t a stretch and could be “the next thing” in environmental law.

Precedents for corporate homicide prosecutions

While homicide charges against oil companies would be unprecedented, corporations have been tried for homicide before. Notable examples include PG&E for the 2018 Camp Fire and BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Legal scholars argue that if criminal legal systems do not focus on climate crimes soon, it may leave future generations with significantly less for the law to protect.

Over two dozen civil lawsuits have been filed against the oil industry for compensation related to climate change effects. These climate liability lawsuits have mostly been filed in US state courts and have been mired in jurisdictional disputes for years. The authors of the “Climate Homicide” paper argue that homicide prosecution could be a more effective legal remedy compared to civil and regulatory actions, as oil companies couldn’t seek relief in federal law.

Legal remedies and relief options for convicted corporations

If fossil fuel companies are convicted of climate homicide, potential relief options could include restructuring into public benefit corporations. This would prioritize reducing fossil fuel production and distribution while investing in clean energy. Criminal law may offer an effective tool for states to shift fossil fuel companies’ conduct and promote more sustainable practices moving forward.