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Prosecutors Should Consider Homicide Charges Against Big Oil for Deaths Caused by Climate Change, New Paper Argues

WASHINGTON, D.C. – When individuals are killed by severe weather events or disasters triggered by climate change, prosecutors have authority to charge fossil fuel companies with homicide, according to a new paper by David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program, and Donald Braman, associate professor of law at George Washington University, published today by the Harvard Environmental Law Review.

Big Oil has long understood the “globally catastrophic” risks involved in the production, marketing, and sales of fossil fuels. Yet, despite knowing the effects their actions would have on countless human lives, fossil fuel companies undertook disinformation campaigns intended to undermine climate science and block and delay policy and market responses to this existential threat.

Because of these acts, climate change is already leading to a loss of life across the United States. This fact pattern meets the requirements of homicide, according to the article, titled “Climate Homicide: Prosecuting Big Oil for Climate Deaths.”

“Climate change is not a tragedy, it’s a crime,” said Arkush. “For decades, fossil fuel companies knew that burning their products would trigger globally catastrophic climate change. Instead of changing their business models or alerting the public to this civilizational danger, they funded multimillion-dollar disinformation campaigns to block responses that would curb their dangerous but highly profitable conduct.”

Advocates and victims have used civil lawsuits in an attempt to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable, alleging that it violated consumer protection laws and engaged in other misconduct. These cases are based on a wealth of evidence demonstrating the scope of the wrongful conduct and the lethal results of the industry’s knowledge and misinformation efforts.

“The law is clear that if any individual or company makes a substantial contribution to someone’s death, and does so with a culpable mental state, they can be charged with and convicted of homicide,” said Braman. “Prosecutors should use every legal tool available to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for its decades of misconduct, including criminal charges.” 

Arkush and Braman have been presenting their paper at law schools – including Yale, Harvard, Penn, University of Chicago, NYU, and George Washington University – alongside scientists and other legal experts. Former prosecutors have also participated in these events and expressed support for charging Big Oil with homicide, and several current prosecutors have begun paying attention to the proposed legal strategy.

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