Climate Homicide: Prosecuting Big Oil For Climate Deaths

70 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2023 Last revised: 24 Mar 2023

See all articles by David Arkush

David Arkush

Public Citizen

Donald Braman

George Washington University - Law School; Justice Innovation Lab; DC Justice Lab

Date Written: January 23, 2023

Abstract

Prosecutors regularly bring homicide charges against individuals and corporations whose reckless or negligent acts or omissions cause unintentional deaths, as well as those whose misdemeanors or felonies cause unintentional deaths. Fossil fuel companies learned decades ago that what they produced, marketed, and sold would generate “globally catastrophic” climate change. Rather than alert the public and curtail their operations, they worked to deceive the public about these harms and to prevent regulation of their lethal conduct. They funded efforts to call sound science into doubt and to confuse their shareholders, consumers, and regulators. And they poured money into political campaigns to elect or install judges, legislators, and executive officials hostile to any litigation, regulation, or competition that might limit their profits. Today, the climate change that they forecast has already killed thousands of people in the United States, and it is expected to become increasingly lethal for the foreseeable future. Given the extreme lethality of the conduct and the awareness of the catastrophic risk on the part of fossil fuel companies, should they be charged with homicide? Could they be convicted? In answering these questions, this Article makes several contributions to our understanding of criminal law and the role it could play in combating crimes committed at a massive scale. It describes the doctrinal and social predicates of homicide prosecutions where corporate conduct endangers much or all of the public. It also identifies important advantages of homicide prosecutions relative to civil and regulatory remedies, and it details how and why prosecution for homicide may be the most effective legal remedy available in cases like this. Finally, it argues that, if our criminal legal system cannot focus more intently on climate crimes—and soon—we may leave future generations with significantly less for the law to protect.

Keywords: climate change, homicide, criminal law, prosecution, accountability, causation, fossil fuels, big oil, negligent homicide, manslaughter, murder, felony murder, misdemeanor manslaughter, fraud, RICO, racketeering, conspiracy, prosecutors, public benefit corporation, environmental crime

Suggested Citation

Arkush, David and Braman, Donald, Climate Homicide: Prosecuting Big Oil For Climate Deaths (January 23, 2023). Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, 2024, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4335779 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4335779

David Arkush

Public Citizen ( email )

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Donald Braman (Contact Author)

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

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United States
20250341329940572 (Phone)

Justice Innovation Lab ( email )

DC Justice Lab ( email )

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Washington, DC 20009
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