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Oil execs should be tried for crimes against humanity, essayist Kate Aronoff argues

Climate change is a dire threat, perhaps it is time to put the people who created and denied the problem on trial?

Photo credit: SANDY HUFFAKER / AFP / Getty Images
  • A new essay published in Jacobin argues that the time has come to try the executives of oil companies for crimes against humanity as a result of their actions promoting climate change.
  • There is a legal precedent, as the heads of several German companies were tried for such crimes after WWII.
  • Even if it never comes to pass, discussing the idea could give us a sense of what steps to make the world a greener place are possible.

The threat posed by climate change is planetary in scale and deadly serious. Four hundred thousand people die each year from climate change-related causes. Natural disasters are getting worse because of it. The last five years have been the hottest ever recorded.

While there is a tendency to put the problem in terms so dark that people think the situation is hopeless, we're not doomed just yet. If dramatic action is taken now, we can keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050 and avoid the worst-case scenarios that climate scientists keep showing us. What form that action will have to take is still being debated.

One of the boldest suggestions for necessary action in the name of saving the planet was recently put forward by Kate Aronoff in an essay published in Jacobin magazine in which she argues for trying the executives of all the major oil companies for crimes against humanity.

Wait, what?

The argument is intriguing, and the essay is written in a way that both properly handles the gravity of the problem while giving a glimmer of hope. While the idea it presents may seem shocking, it is presented with strong reasoning and should at least be considered.

It begins by reminding us that the 100 largest fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. As mentioned above, 400,000 people die each year as a result of the climate change that these emissions cause, and the other side effects of burning fossil fuels, such as air pollution or cancer, may kill up to 5,000,0000 people a year.

The companies in question have known about the dangers posed greenhouse gas emissions since at least the late '80s. Understanding the risks and environmental damage their business model creates, they have spent millions upon millions of dollars to discredit climate science and prevent regulations designed to limit the damage they cause. The resulting damage has already been astronomical and could soon become uncalculatable.

Their actions could qualify as a crime against humanity under the broad definition of the term; which merely requires knowledge of and involvement with actions which systematically attack a civilian population. The idea of a company's executives being tried for such a thing isn't as crazy as it sounds since the people who made gas for the Nazis were tried for their part in the Holocaust after WWII.

Given the seemingly obvious point that the companies that have done these things to deny climate change and prevent strong environmental regulations probably can't be trusted to fix the problem themselves. Ms. Aronoff, therefore, calls for legal action against the companies and the people who are running them as a way to not only halt the destruction they are wreaking upon the environment but also to break the power they often hold over policy-making through litigation and public denunciation.

Even if this never comes to pass, which the author admits is probable, the mass public movement that would be needed to even place this option on the table could bring other environmental policies into play. This is the long-term goal anyway, she argues, and the discussion of whether oil company executives committed crimes against humanity might be enough to reduce their influence even without indictments.

For those who would like to read the essay in its entirety, it may be found here.

Cutting out influence  

Tobacco companies aren't allowed anywhere near World Health Organization meetings for reasons that should be obvious. However, oil and gas companies have their fingers all over the regulatory codes and international treaties that are supposed to limit their activities. According to Ms. Aronoff:

"At COP 24 last year in Poland, GasNaturally cohosted a cocktail hour with the European Union, and Shell bragged about its influence in grafting a whole section onto the Paris Agreement. The Polish coal sector was a main sponsor of the whole event….. Stateside, advocates of certain forms of carbon pricing…. have boasted of garnering support and funding from the likes of Exxon and BP, apparently a marker of their respectability."

She calls this "an atmosphere of impunity for atrocity" and argues that we should at least be keeping fossil fuel companies out of such meetings and policy discussions if we aren't prosecuting them.

The time corporate executives were tried for crimes against humanity before

Believe it or not, there is a precedent for the idea that a company's executives can be tried for crimes against humanity.

The heads of the German chemical conglomerate IG Farben were tried at Nuremberg for participation in the Holocaust with their production of Zyklon B- the gas used to carry out the Holocaust. They were also tried for the use of slave labor and for preparing to wage an offensive war.

The results of trying them were mixed, only half of them were found guilty of any of the various crimes they were tired for and the worst any of them were sentenced to was eight years minus time served. Even more disappointingly, most of them returned to cushy executive jobs in critical sectors of the German economy when they got out. However, the convictions demonstrate the legal precedent of viewing a company as being every bit as capable as a state when it comes to crimes against civilian populations.

Two other trails were held for German industrialists who made the crimes of the Nazi regime possible, the results were again mixed and the sentences often limited.

The oil wars: America's energy obsession

Name and Shame

Ms. Aronoff argues that many of the major players in fossil fuel companies are relatively unknown. She sees this as a problem because it makes the issue abstract and more difficult to conceptualize. By dragging real people into courtrooms, a face is given to the problem and real people are punished for actions which harm millions of people.

Even if such trails were to lead to limited convictions or the convicted were able to still hold cushy jobs after serving their sentences, the fact that executives could be tried and sent to prison for various crimes could be an excellent motivation for anybody working in the energy sector who wants to avoid being convicted of crimes against humanity to start behaving themselves. After all, how much profit is worth being dragged to The Hauge over?

Sometimes you don’t need to win to win. 

The various legal difficulties of accomplishing this are described in the article, not the least of which is that the United States is not a signatory to the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court. However, this might not be terrible.

Ms. Aronoff argues that the real goal of any mass environmental movement should be the decarbonization of the economy. While trying oil executives might be a way to achieve this, it is not the end itself. Any mass movement that was able to apply such pressure on governments to put the idea of trying these executives for crimes against humanity on the table would likely be able to bring other bold ideas on how to make the world greener to the table.

As neuroscientist David Eagleman explains, putting out an idea that might never catch on is a great way to figure out what ideas can work. Even if the idea of putting the c-suites of major corporations on trial never takes off, just discussing it can help us determine what could.

How realistic is any of this anyhow?

Therein lies the problem.

As the author explains in the essay, several institutional issues pop up when discussing the question of just how to carry out the idea; not the least of which is that the ICC is designed to go after state actors, not corporations. While it is possible that individual countries could carry out the task, this is also a legal minefield.

The question of political will is also important, given that many of the largest oil companies in the world are also primary revenue sources or owned by states that depend on them doing well. The idea that the Saudi government would go after the executives of their national oil company, which is reasonable for 3.5 percent of all carbon emissions since 1995, is absurd. The potential for a mass movement in a democratic society demanding the executives be brought to justice is possible, but it would face a wall of opposition from the people who both deny climate change is happening or oppose bringing corporate executives to trial over it.

In any case, the mere introduction of this idea to the public debate should have far-reaching consequences on how we consider correcting for a century of greenhouse gas emissions. While we may never see Rex Tillerson standing trial for egregious pollution, we could still manage to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In the end, isn't that what matters?

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Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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