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The Criminal Dimension of Climate Change

Municipal Airport, Ukiah, California, July 27, 2018

Municipal Airport, Ukiah, California, July 27, 2018. Credit: Bob Dass, Flickr.

Andrew Glikson is an Earth and Paleoclimate scientist. He is a visiting fellow at the Research School of Earth Sciences at Australian National University, College of Science. This review is adapted from the one published in Media Monitors Network.

Peter D. Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth, Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2017), 270 pages, $27.95, paperback.

“We’re simply talking about the very life support system of this planet.”

Joachim Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute of Climate Impacts

The extreme rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the onset of the industrial age, reaching ~403 parts per million (ppm) in 2017, and the corresponding rise in mean global temperature to 1.3°C above preindustrial temperature, pose an existential risk for the future of civilization and nature.

Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival, a book by Peter Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth, with a foreword by leading climate scientist James Hansen, outlines the criminality of those who actively promote the continuing emission of carbon gases into the atmosphere despite having full knowledge of the consequences. These consequences include the breakdown of large ice sheets, rising sea levels, and the intensification of extreme weather events around the world, such as hurricanes, floods, and fires.1

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The book highlights the collusion of large parts of the mainstream media with climate change denial and its cover up, stating that

there is no benign explanation for a full media blackout of a significant global development that was heralded by the United Nations Secretary-General. This blackout goes far beyond ignorance or negligence. It is a willful obstruction of public knowledge of the extraordinary extent of global efforts to combat the greatest existential threat of all time by changing business-as-usual. We define this willful, methodical blocking of vital survival information as an unprecedented crime against life on the planet.

The book cites Tom Engelhardt, author of Terracide and the Terrarists: Destroying the Planet for Record Profits:

The fossil-fuel companies are guilty of the ultimate crime, because they are earning their profits directly off melting the planet, knowing that their extremely profitable acts are destroying the very habitat, the very temperature range that for so long made life comfortable for humanity.… However, Big Carbon could never have been able to continue its polluting ways—long after the scientific community had reached consensus about the connection between fossil-fuel emissions, global warming, and climate change—without the assistance of the media.2

According to James Hansen, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s former chief climate scientist,

burning all fossil fuels would create a different planet than the one that humanity knows. The paleoclimate record and ongoing climate change make it clear that the climate system would be pushed beyond tipping points, setting in motion irreversible changes, including ice sheet disintegration with a continually adjusting shoreline, extermination of a substantial fraction of species on the planet, and increasingly devastating regional climate extremes.3

Following the presentation of definitive evidence of anthropogenic climate change, a plethora of websites have emerged reporting the views of nonscientists as well as scientists known to receive funding from the fossil fuel industry. These views, in breach of the basic laws of physics and of direct observations, ignore peer-reviewed, published climate and paleoclimate science, misrepresent observed atmospheric and oceanic processes and trends, fabricate evidence, and conduct personal attacks against climate scientists.4

Examples of this abound:

  • Climate change deniers claim carbon dioxide is not a factor driving global warming, contrary to the rise of carbon dioxide by more than 40 percent since the onset of the industrial age and the laws of black-body radiation—Stefan-Boltzmann law, Planck’s law, and Kirchhoff’s law.5
  • Whereas the average global temperature has been rising sharply since about 1975, there was a relative lull during 2000–14, with high warming rates resuming in 2015. This was mainly due to (1) albedo increase from heavy sulfur-aerosol emission, and (2) fewer sunspots. Climate-change deniers claim this transient period represents a cessation of global warming.
  • Whereas the large Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets have been melting at a rate of more than 500 billion metric tons per year, the ice-melt water flowing off these glaciers cooled adjacent ocean regions, resulting in transient extension of circum-Antarctic sea ice, which climate-change deniers claim to represent global cooling.6

Virulent attacks on climate scientists followed. To use one example from the book, a climate change denier “argued that the ‘demonization of carbon dioxide really differs little from the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the Soviet extermination of class enemies or ISIL slaughter of infidels.'”7

Large parts of the conservative press have taken strong exception to the evidence of anthropogenic global warming, as reported in Robert Manne’s essays “Diabolical” and “Bad News.”8

The manifest paralysis of the political and media classes in the face of the climate impasse, evidenced by the failure of a succession of United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change to undertake meaningful steps to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions—since 2009: Copenhagen, Cancún, Doha, Durban, Warsaw, Paris—requires alternative avenues to limit the deleterious consequences of continuing carbon emissions on the biosphere.9 These consequences have been reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II (Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability) and Working Group III (WGIII – Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of climate change).10

Traditionally, political and economic negotiations aim to compromise. Unfortunately, no negotiation is possible with the basic laws of physics and chemistry, or with processes in the atmosphere-ocean-cryosphere system.

Is there anything in international and national law that can avert ongoing carbon emissions? Do global and national legal systems offer any possibilities in this regard? In exploring potential restrictions on carbon emissions, the following international and national laws and conventions are relevant:

  • Crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Explanatory Memorandum. Such crimes are particularly odious offenses that constitute a serious attack on human dignity, or grave humiliation or degradation of one or more human beings. Crimes against humanity are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part of either government policy (although perpetrators need not identify themselves with policy) or a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority.
  • United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Part III, Article 6, which states that “every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life. When deprivation of life constitutes the crime of genocide, it is understood that nothing in this article shall authorize any State Party to the present Covenant to derogate in any way from any obligation assumed under the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”11
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, July 17, 1998, Article 7, Crimes Against Humanity, extermination. Extermination includes the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population.12 Australian Commonwealth and State laws regarding air quality standards and the prohibition of pollution.13
  • Recently, a successful legal challenge has been raised in the United States in this regard, as evidenced in the statement by Professor James Hansen.14

Some of the consequences of the above include:

Since the onset of the industrial age and particularly since the Second World War, an abrupt rise in atmospheric temperature levels has been driven by an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases due to the release of more than 600 billion metric tons of carbon (gigatons of carbon, or GtC) into the atmosphere. This is leading to a dramatic shift in the state of the atmosphere-ocean system, unprecedented in recorded geological history with the exception of events that led to mass extinctions, such as massive volcanism, extraterrestrial impacts, and large-scale releases of methane.

As a direct consequence of the above, mean global temperatures have risen by about 1.3°C and, had it not been for emitted sulfur, aerosol temperatures have risen by nearly 2.0°C, reaching levels similar to those of the Pliocene period roughly 2.6–5.3 million years ago. This shift is occurring at the fastest rate recorded by paleoclimate studies. Whereas many species can adapt to gradual environmental changes, the current temperature-rise rate, resulting from ~2–3 ppm carbon dioxide/year, cannot be sustained.15 The current change is manifested by an increase in the melting rate of the major ice sheets, the accelerating rise in sea levels, and the greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, reflecting elevated energy levels of the atmosphere-ocean system.16

Continuing carbon emissions and the consequent rise of mean global temperatures will render large parts of Earth’s land surfaces uninhabitable due to extreme temperatures, droughts, storms, and flooding of coastal deltas and lower river regions due to the rise in sea levels. The rise in sea levels is estimated to be about 25 ± 12 meters—Pliocene-like conditions—constituting an existential calamity for civilization and nature.17 Leaving aside the injection of transient, short-residence time sulfur aerosols, the arrest of current climate trends would require (1) a meaningful reduction in the current rate of carbon emissions (~9 GtC/year), and (2) the application of carbon dioxide drawdown technologies, such as large-scale sea grass farming, biochar, and carbon dioxide capture by air streaming through basalt and serpentine, aimed at reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases by at least 50 ppm. There are enough reserves of conventional and unconventional (oil shale, tar sands, coal seam gas) fossil fuels whose combustion would raise atmospheric and oceanic temperatures to the levels of the early Eocene and the Cretaceous periods, excluding most current forms of advanced life on Earth.

As Robert Manne writes: “Unless by some miracle almost every climate scientist is wrong, future generations will look upon ours with puzzlement and anger—as the people who might have prevented Earth from becoming a habitat unfriendly to humans and other species but nonetheless failed to act.… Our conscious destruction of a planet friendly to humans and other species is the most significant development in history.”18

The carbon-oxygen cycle of the atmosphere-ocean-land constitutes the lungs of the biosphere. Burning the vast carbon reserves buried in sediments can only result in a demise rivaling the five great mass extinctions in Earth’s history. Survivors of the sixth mass extinction may hold responsible those who promoted carbon emissions and turned a blind eye to the unfolding tragedy: the fossil fuel barons, the political classes, and their media mouthpieces.


  1. Hansen et al., “Young People’s Burden: Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions,” Earth System Dynamics 8, no. 3: 2017, 577–616.
  2. Tom Engelhardt, “Tomgram: Engelhardt, The Biggest Criminal Enterprise in History,” TomDispatch blog, May 23, 2013,
  3. James Hansen et al., “Scientific Case for Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change to Protect Young People and Nature” (working paper, arXiv, 2011).
  4. See Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).
  5. Spencer Weart and the American Institute of Physics, “The Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Effect,” The Discovery of Global Warming, February 2018,
  6. Stefan Rahmstorf et al., “Exceptional Twentieth-Century Slowdown in Atlantic Ocean Overturning Circulation,” Nature Climate Change 5: 2015, 475–80.
  7. Carter and Woodworth, Unprecedented Crime.
  8. Robert Manne, “Diabolical: Why Have We Failed to Address Climate Change?The Monthly, December 1, 2015; Robert Manne, “Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation,” Quarterly Essay 43: 2011.
  9. COP19/CMP9, Short History of the UNFCCC, (Bonn, Germany: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2013),
  10. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, (Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014),
  11. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1966),
  12. International Committee of the Red Cross, Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries (Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross),
  13. Hobart Neil Gunningham, Jennifer Norberry, and Sandra McKillop, eds., Proceedings Of A Conference Held 1–3 September 1993 (Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology),; Department of Environment and Science, Environmental Policy and Legislation, (Brisbane, Queensland: Queensland Government),; Department of Environment and Energy, Air Quality (Canberra: Australian Government),
  14. Declaration of Dr. James E. Hansen in Support of Plaintiffs’ Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh M. et al. v. United States, Barack Obama et al., 6:15-cv-01517-TC (D. Or. Aug. 12, 2015).
  15. Andrew Glikson, “Cenozoic Mean Greenhouse Gases and Temperature Changes with Reference to the Anthropocene,” Global Change Biology 22, no. 12: 2016, 3843–58.
  16. Andrew Freedman, “Hansen Study: Extreme Weather Tied to Climate Change,” Climate Central, August 6, 2012,
  17. Andrew Glikson, “Homo Sapiens and the Sixth Mass Extinction of Species,” The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute blog, March 1, 2016,
  18. Robert Manne, “Diabolical.”
2019, Volume 70, Issue 10 (March 2019)
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