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Legal Scholars Theorize Oil Companies Could Be Prosecuted For ‘Climate Homicide’

Some legal scholars are ready to prosecute oil companies under the criminal offense of “climate homicide,” according to E&E News.

Multiple cities have already filed lawsuits against oil companies on civil public nuisance charges — the Supreme Court soon could give at least one of these cases from Boulder County, Colorado a hearing — but some scholars want to take it up a notch, E&E News reported. In a 70-page paper titled “Climate Homicide: Prosecuting Big Oil for Climate Death,” George Washington Law School professor Donald Braman and director of Public Citizen’s Climate Program David Arkush argue that oil companies can be held to account for their “lethal conduct” that has already “killed thousands of people” in the U.S.

“Fossil fuel companies learned decades ago that what they produced, marketed, and sold would generate ‘globally catastrophic’ climate change,” the abstract states. “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.”

The authors claim harm generated by fossil fuel companies “may soon become unparalleled in human history.”

“We concluded there aren’t really any legal or factual barriers to prosecution,” Arkush said, according to E&E News. “The real potential barriers are political, cultural. Does this strike people as just too out there? Do the fossil fuel companies have too much power, culturally, politically, economically? Those are the real barriers.”

In 2018, University of Maine law professor Anthony Moffa also wrote a paper considering criminal liability for environmental policy. He notes that criminal charges have been levied in some instances, such as against government officials during the 2014 drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, according to E&E News.

“If we’re willing to accept that there is a potential criminal liability attached to a situation where you have contamination of the environment that harms people, I don’t know how you exclude climate change from that conversation,” Moffa told E&E News.

Climate homicide is one piece in a broader push to create legal frameworks that make it difficult for energy companies to operate. Last week, the Hawaii Supreme Court cited a human right to a “life-sustaining climate” in its decision to strike down a power purchasing agreement — making this the first U.S. case to find citizens have climate-related rights.

Braman and Arkush did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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