The unprecedented crime Peter Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth refer to in the title is that of willfully causing global temperatures to rise, through greenhouse gas emissions, to levels already causing large-scale loss of life while threatening human survival and that of countless other species. They might with equal accuracy speak of crimes, plural, when those who from positions of authority either actively aid key offenders or, by failing to hold them to account, betray the trust placed in them.
This is the unique selling point of Unprecedented Crime: a closely argued insistence that, under existing laws and without recourse to new ones framed specifically to outlaw ecocide, we could indict corporate and governmental bodies identified without hyperbole by the authors as guilty of crimes against humanity.
Think about it. Ninety-seven percent of scientists in relevant disciplines are telling us climate change is real, is man-made and is taking us all, meaning humanity and other advanced life forms, down a roller coaster of environmental catastrophe. Not in some distant sci-fi dystopia but on a timescale measured in decades, years even. Given this, the scale and extent of denial – literal in the case of ‘sceptics’ in the pay of Fossil Fuels Inc; de facto in that of governmental cowardice and venality – are staggering. Why then, with the stakes so high, would we not view the perpetrators as guilty of crimes of a magnitude surpassing anything the world has seen – even in history’s darkest moments?
This is the premise of Carter and Woodworth’s case. Like any good scientist, they start with observable phenomena, as indicated by their opening chapter: Extreme Weather Around the World. From here they proceed, again as scientists do, to set out in Chapter Two the underlying drivers; in this case a heightening of earth’s natural and life-optimal greenhouse effect, to unnatural and decidedly sub-optimal levels, noting along the way a 1990 assertion by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that as a matter of certainty:
Emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These increases will enhance the green-house effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface temperature.
But that second chapter does more than set out the science. It locates the birth of a small and decidedly non-scientific cabal, of pretty much the most powerful vested interests on the planet – aka the fossil fuels industry and its financiers – and charts their success in casting doubt on that IPCC certainty:
In 2010 a landmark book, Merchants of Doubt, showed how a small group of prominent scientists with connections to politics and industry led disinformation campaigns denying established scientific knowledge about smoking, acid rain, DDT, the ozone layer, and global warming.
Written by Dr. Naomi Oreskes, Harvard science historian, and NASA historian Erik Conway, Merchants was reviewed by Bill Buchanan of The Christian Science Monitor as “the most important book of 2010,” and by The Guardian’s Robin McKie as “the best science book of the year.” It was followed by the 2014 documentary of the same name, also widely seen and reviewed.
The research showed how the disinformation tactics of the tobacco companies in the 1960s to undermine the scientific link between smoking and lung cancer served as a model for subsequent oil company tactics suppressing climate change science.
Following the U.S. Surgeon General’s landmark report on smoking and lung cancer in 1964, the government legislated warning labels on cigarette packages. But a tobacco company executive from Brown & Williamson had a brainwave: people still wanted to smoke and doubt about the science would give them a ready excuse.
His infamous 1969 memo read: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
Here’s the thing. People exercised by a terrifying possibility, whose avoidance or mitigation will necessitate – or can be portrayed as necessitating – inconvenience and pain, will be receptive to the counter-view that it’s all hogwash, or at the very least that the doomsayers are overegging things. So eagerly receptive, in fact, that they won’t look too closely at the motives of those advancing such a counter-view. Nuff said, save that Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers For Survival’s spotlight on dirty tricks and systematic strong-arming – their attendant corruption of body politic and informed debate constituting a crime in and of itself – does not make for the most relaxing of bedtime reading.
Three subsequent chapters make the case against an unholy trinity whose crimes of commission and omission would place them in the dock, under existing laws, in a saner and less mendacious world. The headers speak for themselves: State Crime Against the Global Public Trust … Media Collusion (a chapter of particular interest in light of the recently published Media Lens book on media corruption by market forces) … Corporate and Bank Crime …
Chapter 6 discusses Moral Collapse and Religious Apathy. Well well. Search in vain for a “thou shalt not trash Planet Earth” message in Quran, Veda or Bible, but these and other revered texts from our pre-industrial past have much to say on injustice. The meek, you see, are not to inherit the earth after all. Rather, the world’s poorest – their carbon footprints negligible – find themselves at the front line of climatic catastrophes already underway as a result of corporate greed in the Global North. Here’s a snippet from the early pages of John Smith’s Imperialism in the Twenty-first Century, reviewed here, on this aspect of the matter. Having opened with the collapse of an eight-storey textile factory in Dhaka, killing 1133 workers, Smith goes on to say that:
Starvation wages, death-trap factories and fetid slums in Bangladesh typify conditions for hundreds of millions of workers in the Global South, source of surplus value sustaining profits and unsustainable overconsumption in imperialist countries. Bangladesh is also in the front line of another consequence of capitalism’s reckless exploitation of living labor and nature: “climate change”, more accurately described as capitalist destruction of nature. Most of Bangladesh is low-lying. As sea levels rise and monsoons become more energetic, farmland is inundated with salt water, accelerating migration into the cities …
I’ve a reason for citing this. Part Two of Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers For Survival moves from naming the guilty to setting out what is to be done. In doing so the authors introduce the only note I take issue with in the entire book. Chapter 10, on Market Leadership, opens with this:
Much has been written about the constraining effects of capitalism, globalization, and the debt-based economy on a clean energy transition, saying that we must begin by addressing these root issues.
Although these structural impediments may be slowing the potential pace of renewable energy growth, the climate emergency allows us no time to fix the economic system first.
For reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere – here for instance, and here – I shudder at such strawman argument. Few on the left say “fix capitalism then climate change” but many, me included, see scant prospect of stopping or even slowing this and other effects of capitalism’s destruction of nature without taking on what the authors rightly refer to in the above extract as “root issues”. The two fights are one and the same. The underlying cause of climate change is capitalism’s inbuilt addiction to growth: its constant and tyrannical drive to create ever more stuff for us to buy; its demand – no less imperious for that sly obeisance to the God of Choice – that we continually cast out the old to make room for the new and, by this and this alone, breathe life into falling profits in an endless cycle of boom and bust. Moreover, there’s only one irrefutable reply to the mantra that measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions are – like measures to rein in the lucrative death-for-profit industries – “anti-job”. That is to push back at such slick and circular ‘reasoning’ by placing wealth creation for human need, not private profit, firmly on the table.
So say I. But where does this leave the likes of me? Do we withdraw in a sulk from collaboration with those who see things otherwise while sharing our horror at the criminal insanity unfolding before our eyes? Hardly. Climate breakdown, this book reminds us, leaves no room for sectarianism. Red and Green must find common cause. To that end we should differentiate two forms of collaboration: on the one hand rainbow alliances whose shaky, lowest common denominator foundations require dilution upon dilution of principle, only to implode at the first real test of solidarity; on the other hand working alliances, united fronts, in which no dilution of principle is called for. Just shared recognition of a common goal, and willingness to engage with all who are prepared to work towards it.
To that end, Unprecedented Crime offers a resounding rallying call. It sets out with admirable clarity the nature and scale of the problem, offering a novel but logically flawless way of viewing that problem with the urgency necessary for confronting it with adequate resolve. It lays out the basis for a program of concrete demands in the here and now: demands around which an opposition movement can coalesce, demands with which to win over the undecided as well as those who have given up on hope and demands with which to counter the lies of denialists and the delusions of those who still believe we have time on our side.