Organised campaigns that spread inaccurate information about climate change science should be considered as being criminally negligent and showing a “willful disregard for human life”, an academic has said.
In an article published by the Conversation, Lawrence Torcello, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology who has researched the moral implications of global warming denialism, talks about the 2009 earthquake that devastated L’Aquila, Italy.
The disaster killed 307 people. Subsequently, six Italian scientists and a local defence minister were sentenced to six years in prison because they failed to accurately report the danger to the public.
Torcello says the case should remind us of how much is at stake regarding the public’s understanding of science.
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“The importance of clearly communicating science to the public should not be underestimated”, he says.
“Accurately understanding our natural environment and sharing that information can be a matter of life or death. When it comes to global warming, much of the public remains in denial about a set of facts that the majority of scientists clearly agree on.”
He adds, “I believe that scientists have the corollary obligation to correct public misinformation as visibly and unequivocally as possible.”
Torcello uses the L’Aquila tragedy as an analogy, asking us to imagine that individuals with a financial or political interest had funded an organised campaign to discredit warnings of the imminent earthquake. He says that this is precisely what is happening with regards to climate change.
“More deaths can already be attributed to climate change than the L’Aquila earthquake and we can be certain that deaths from climate change will continue to rise with global warming”, he says.
Estimates vary significantly for how many people fall victim to of all the impacts of climate change. The World Health Organisation says that around 150,000 people die each year as a result of global warming, while one 2012 report said the real figure is nearer 5 million.
Deadly impacts vary from extreme weather events to increased risk of disease and loss of food production. Experts from the UN and the US military have also recently warned that climate change is likely to cause wars and encourage the spread of terrorism.
“Criminal negligence is normally understood to result from failures to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms, or the threat of harms to public safety, consequent of certain activities”, Torcello continues.
“Those funding climate denial campaigns can reasonably predict the public’s diminished ability to respond to climate change as a result of their behaviour.”
One investigation published in December revealed that climate change denialism depended on a system of ‘dark money’ and untraceable funding.
The research found that some famous ultra-free market conservative foundations such as the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation and the Sarah Scaife Foundation played a significant role.
Environmental sociologist Robert Brulle, the researcher behind the study, said, “Like a play on Broadway, the countermovement has stars in the spotlight – often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians – but behind the stars is an organisational structure of directors, scriptwriters and producers, in the form of conservative foundations.”