The Case for Charging Fossil Fuel Companies With Homicide
Big Oil's climate lies have been exposed. Is it time to hold fossil fuel executives criminally responsible for the deadly consequences of their actions?
We’re back with another episode of the award-winning News Beat podcast! If you’ll recall, we recently produced two episodes on Big Oil’s climate lies and its elaborate, decades-long disinformation campaign to hide the fossil fuel industry’s role in destroying the planet. A wave of civil lawsuits has brought the issue to the fore, as polluters are forced to reconcile with the fact that their own internal reports were remarkably accurate about climate change, while they told the public, shareholders, and regulators the complete opposite.
“Fossil fuel companies, privately, internally, have never been climate deniers. They've only been climate deniers externally.” - Donald Braman
In this episode, two of our guests suggest it’s time to prosecute fossil fuel companies for homicide for the millions who have or will die from pollution, extreme heat, and ever-intensifying natural disasters. While people suspicious of this argument may write it off as a “radical legal theory”—that’s how The Guardian characterized it—our guests see it as a reasonable interpretation of the laws of the United States.
We’ll get into the arguments for prosecuting these companies for homicide in a bit, but first some much-needed context:
In the first episode of our two-part “The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Big Lie,” climate historian Ben Franta said the industry’s knowledge about global warming goes back to at least 1959—the year infamous scientist Edward Teller gave a keynote address to oil executives warning of the hazards and calling on the assembled bigwigs to transition away from fossil fuels (1959!!!).
In our second episode, we examined the historic hearings on Capitol Hill about Big Oil’s lies and well-funded disinformation campaigns. The House Oversight Committee’s investigation concluded that the fossil fuel companies have little intention to transition to clean energy, and are instead committed to their core business model: burning fossil fuels, which is the largest contributor to climate change.
Why We Covered This Topic
We can’t underscore this point enough: Scientists employed by Big Oil warned about the catastrophic consequences of their actions—with astonishing accuracy—yet the firms chose to ignore the dangers and have since amassed massive profits. Two such companies are ExxonMobil and Shell, both of which raked in record profits in 2022 of $55 billion and $40 billion, respectively.
In the case of ExxonMobil, researchers from Harvard and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that the company “created a series of remarkably reliable models and analyses projecting global warming from carbon dioxide emissions over the coming decades. Specifically, Exxon projected that fossil fuel emissions would lead to 0.20 degrees Celsius of global warming per decade, with a margin of error of 0.04 degrees—a trend that has been proven largely accurate.”
Shell, too, was in possession of internal research that painted a dire portrait of the future, according to documents unearthed by researchers: “Since the 1970s, Shell scientists have not only taken note of studies on the potentially disastrous climatic consequences of fossil fuel use, they themselves have been involved in a number of studies that established this. Shell never mentioned any of this to the outside world.”
It’s important to start here, because what fossil fuel companies knew about the threat of climate change and when they knew it is central to a growing number of lawsuits seeking to hold these firms accountable for misleading the public. Most recently, 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico collectively sued oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron, among others, alleging that they “knowingly caused and contributed to the worsening of the climate change by producing, promoting, refining, marketing, and selling fossil fuel products…while concealing and misrepresenting the dangers associated with the use of fossil fuel-based products, including the increased frequency of more dangerous storms.”
But what if a first-of-its-kind racketeering suit, such as the one brought by the collection of municipalities in Puerto Rico, fails to truly hold fossil fuel companies accountable?
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
There’s a growing number of civil lawsuits aimed at holding fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in the climate crisis, including a RICO case brought by 16 municipalities in Puerto Rico.
Our two guests, Donald Braman and David Arkush, published a paper arguing for the criminal prosecution of fossil fuel companies for homicide.
During our interview, they argued that filing criminal charges against representatives of these companies is fundamental to the notion of “justice” because fossil fuel companies knowingly concealed damaging information in the pursuit of profits while people died. Here’s how Braman puts it: “Climate change is killing people…The real revelation was that they knew that was going to happen, and they went ahead anyway. And that's what makes it a crime.”
We encourage you to listen to the episode to hear their entire argument, but David Arkush says their deliberate lies and deception are evidence of a “culpable mental state,” which could mean their reckless or negligent actions caused people to die.
Who We Interviewed & What They Said
Donald Braman is an associate professor at the law school at George Washington University and the director of Science and Policy at the nonprofit Justice Innovation Lab.
“We think that what a criminal prosecution has to offer is a far better and more appropriate way to address this than what we have seen thus far. There have been some procedural successes in the other lawsuits, but what we haven't seen is any success in restraining the lethal conduct of these fossil fuel companies yet. And until we see some success on that front, I think we're convinced that a prosecution could help hold them accountable more quickly and more effectively than what we're doing right now on its own.”
David Arkush is the director of the Climate Program at the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen.
“When we looked through the law carefully, we found that the conduct of the fossil fuel companies, combined with their mental state, basically, in our view, meets every form of homicide out there except for premeditated murder. So they, at a minimum, were negligent to the possibility that people were going to die from continuing to burn fossil fuels. Pretty easy in my view to make a case [that] they're reckless. Pretty easy to make the case that they knew very well what was going to happen, and they have great internal studies. Some of their own scientists are some of the most published scientists in the world, most respected scientists in the world on climate science.”
Read Donald and David’s paper, titled “Climate Homicide: Prosecuting Big Oil for Climate Deaths”
A new investigation based on internal Shell documents reveals the extent of the company’s knowledge about the “greenhouse effect” dating back to the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Exxon disputed climate findings for years. Its scientists knew better.”
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Audio Editor/Sound Designer/Producer/Host: Manny Faces
Editor-In-Chief/Producer: Christopher Twarowski
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Episode Art: Jeff Main
Executive Producer: Jed Morey