The Moral and Legal Meaning of Failing to Deal with Climate Change

August 30, 2018

I often wrestle with how gentle or how strong to come on. To get everyone’s support on climate change, I want to come on gently. But climate change is so big, urgent and underappreciated that I want to come on strong.

The experts tell us that we can make a big difference. We can take steps that will really slow down and even stop climate change beyond what is already inevitable. But nothing will happen by itself. The economy won’t automatically stop selling carbon-based fuels that produce greenhouse gasses. Government is necessary to do that. Without government coordinating our efforts, each of us individually make only a small difference and we can defend our bad choices by pointing out that it’s legal. But with government coordinating the move to more climate friendly products and methods, we can make a big difference.

Unfortunately, the current Administration is fighting against rules designed to reduce greenhouse gasses. It is rolling back automobile emission and engineering standards that would significantly reduce greenhouse gasses that we produce. The transportation industry produces a large part of greenhouse gasses so real progress requires action among auto manufacturers. But with the Administration working to roll rules back, auto makers say they’ll just wait and see. Meanwhile, Americans buy the largest vehicles they can afford. Progress on sedans gets wiped out by the market for SUVs, trucks and HUMVEEs. One way to control the impact of those market choices is to retain, not roll-back, those emission rules. Another is to introduce greenhouse gas taxes. Government is a necessary part of any real effort to control global warming, for ourselves, our children, grandchildren and posterity.

Failing to act against global warming will increase the worldwide refugee flow which many Americans fear, and turn many Americans into refugees in our own country, from the coasts and the great Midwest Mississippi River basin the where people will be forced to leave their homes and push into places ill-prepared to house, feed and employ them. Failing to act against global warming will magnify the onslaught of tropical illnesses on Americans who are ill-prepared to deal with them. Failing to act against global warming will send our parents to early graves in heat waves that stress their hearts.

The law makes a stronger point that reflects the stakes in global warming. Intentional, premeditated, criminally negligent or reckless killing of one or more human beings is murder.

The lowest form of murder is involuntary manslaughter. An unintentional, involuntary killing is nevertheless manslaughter if it was inherently dangerous or was done with reckless disregard for human life, and the defendant knew or should have known the conduct was a threat to others’ lives.

Does that fit the people who are tearing down the rules to slow or stop global warming and other forms of climate change? We know that climate change will kill many people, in this country and all across the globe. We know that greenhouse gasses from burning carbon-based fuels is heating the earth and additional burning of carbon-based fuels will heat it more. In other words, burning carbon-based fuels is inherently dangerous – it will kill people. The impact of government rules on death and survival is very clear. That will certainly bubble up in lawsuits. But the law also reflects powerful moral conclusions well worth thinking about.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 28, 2018.

 

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