Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?

This powerful article by Lawrence Torcello, assistant professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, first appeared at The Conversation here. It examines the potential legal liabilities that should attach to deliberate misinformation campaigns to delay action on climate change.

The importance of clearly communicating science to the public should not be underestimated. 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. With such high stakes, an organised campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent.

The earthquake that rocked L’Aquila Italy in 2009 provides an interesting case study of botched communication. This natural disaster left more than 300 people dead and nearly 66,000 people homeless. In a strange turn of events six Italian scientists and a local defence minister were subsequently sentenced to six years in prison.

The ruling is popularly thought to have convicted scientists for failing to predict an earthquake. On the contrary, as risk assessment expert David Ropeik pointed out, the trial was actually about the failure of scientists to clearly communicate risks to the public. The convicted parties were accused of providing “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information”. As one citizen stated:

We all know that the earthquake could not be predicted, and that evacuation was not an option. All we wanted was clearer information on risks in order to make our choices.

Crucially, the scientists, when consulted about ongoing tremors in the region, did not conclude that a devastating earthquake was impossible in L’Aquila. But, when the Defence Minister held a press conference saying there was no danger, they made no attempt to correct him. I don’t believe poor scientific communication should be criminalised because doing so will likely discourage scientists from engaging with the public at all.

But the tragedy in L’Aquila reminds us how important clear scientific communication is and how much is at stake regarding the public’s understanding of science. I have argued elsewhere that scientists have an ethical obligation to communicate their findings as clearly as possible to the public when such findings are relevant to public policy. Likewise, I believe that scientists have the corollary obligation to correct public misinformation as visibly and unequivocally as possible.

Many scientists recognize these civic and moral obligations. Climatologist Michael Mann is a good example; Mann has recently made the case for public engagement in a powerful New York Times opinion piece: If You See Something Say Something.

Misinformation and criminal negligence

Still, critics of the case in L’Aquila are mistaken if they conclude that criminal negligence should never be linked to science misinformation. Consider cases in which science communication is intentionally undermined for political and financial gain. Imagine if in L’Aquila, scientists themselves had made every effort to communicate the risks of living in an earthquake zone. Imagine that they even advocated for a scientifically informed but costly earthquake readiness plan.

If those with a financial or political interest in inaction had funded an organised campaign to discredit the consensus findings of seismology, and for that reason no preparations were made, then many of us would agree that the financiers of the denialist campaign were criminally responsible for the consequences of that campaign. I submit that this is just what is happening with the current, well documented funding of global warming denialism.

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. Nonetheless, climate denial remains a serious deterrent against meaningful political action in the very countries most responsible for the crisis.

Climate denial funding

We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent. The charge of criminal and moral negligence ought to extend to all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public’s understanding of scientific consensus.

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. Those funding climate denial campaigns can reasonably predict the public’s diminished ability to respond to climate change as a result of their behaviour. Indeed, public uncertainty regarding climate science, and the resulting failure to respond to climate change, is the intentional aim of politically and financially motivated denialists.

My argument probably raises an understandable, if misguided, concern regarding free speech. We must make the critical distinction between the protected voicing of one’s unpopular beliefs, and the funding of a strategically organised campaign to undermine the public’s ability to develop and voice informed opinions. Protecting the latter as a form of free speech stretches the definition of free speech to a degree that undermines the very concept.

What are we to make of those behind the well documented corporate funding of global warming denial? Those who purposefully strive to make sure “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” is given to the public? I believe we understand them correctly when we know them to be not only corrupt and deceitful, but criminally negligent in their willful disregard for human life. It is time for modern societies to interpret and update their legal systems accordingly.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

65 thoughts on “Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?”

  1. It’s a crime to yell “FIRE!!” in a crowded theatre, but is it equally criminal to yell “THERE’S NOTHING WRONG, STAY IN YOUR SEATS!!” when the theatre really is on fire?

      1. Hmm, there are many cases in history where the courts found it straight forward to connect certain speech with certain outcomes and attribute culpability as they saw fit. Many countries have ‘hate speech’ provisions in their laws and many have enacted laws restricting the ‘free speech’ of tobacco companies.

  2. The same way that racist hate speeches or campaigns can be deemed illegal. It does get a bit wooly but there are all sorts of abuses, like the rights of individals or corporations to make profits v’s the ‘value’ of the commons. That’s one reason the secret TPP talks are potential dynamite.

  3. I think a comparison can be made to the denial that HIV causes AIDS. In South Africa it led to a reduciton in measures to reduce the spread of the virus and undoubtedly led to an increase in the death rate from AIDS.

    Were the scientists and others criminally liable?

    1. Legally probably not, there has to be an actual law that was broken. Hence the quote “If you seek Justice, pass by, for we care only for the Law.”
      Morally certainly, unless there was some uncertainty at the time as to the links between the virus and the condition and they felt that pursuing HIV was a wild goose chase.
      The climate deniers have no such refuge.

  4. I have posted several times that I believe that the deniers are very few in number but very well funded. I post comments on a lot of sites and have a feel for what is happening. The high profile deniers are well known Inhoffe, Lawson, watts up with that,Moncton Sky News, Dalingpole and a few others. They are all funded by the fossil fuel industry and mostly are proud of it. On top of that are the newspapers and TV stations such as the Australian and other Murdoch papers. And then we get to the internet and it is here that you can see the manipulation. If you go to the Daily Caller, an internet paper so bad that nobody reads it except the staff journalists, and post a genuine climate comment you get hounded off the site. If you go to the Guardian where there are 300 posts there are 50% denier comments, but if you go to the Huffington Post with 1500 there are proportionately very few denier posts. Something is wrong and this is not a normal World. What is happening is that a few rich American companies are funding media outlets who employ journalists to post denier comments through a number of multiple identities to spread misinformation and make it look much bigger than it is.
    The American system of government is, by our standards completely corrupt with huge sums of money being spent secretly but legally to influence public opinion.
    Whether anyone in a corrupt system which protects the rich can prove is doubtful but is there and not very well hidden.

  5. Free speech by individuals is one thing, but organized and orchestrated spreading of false information to deceive the public, that is something entirely different. The later was well recognized as a tactic of the Tobacco industry in their effort to delay or derail public health initiatives and legislative changes against smoking. In the end the Tobacco barons found themselves in front of the law. The same should apply to organized campaigns which spread misinformation as a matter of strategy towards their political or economic goals.

    1. “, but organized and orchestrated spreading of false information to deceive the public, that is something entirely different.”

      Yes Thomas , it is what passes for governance almost everywhere.
      Had you not noticed?

      [Link snipped: GR]

      1. Here is an excerpt:-
        In the Owellian world we now inhabit, however, a piece of information is near-impossible to prove right or wrong….which is of course exactly what the fat controllers want permanently from now on: a reasonable doubt. If one takes the main blogosphere obsessions of the last few years, pretty much every topic has wound up in validity No Man’s Land: climate change, systemic paedophilia, the real state of the economy, how much gold the US really has, who did what in Syria, what Hunt’s up to with the NHS, the real value of the euro, who’s doing what in Ukraine….and on and on ad infinitum.

        We exist in a permanent state of trying to tell propaganda from empiricism, or opinion from paid-for placement. And the persuasion dons better and better disguises as the years pass.”

        Do you disagree?

  6. It is a little ironic that the author cites Peter Gleick’s “leak” that he obtained from Heartland by a process of identity theft and then (possibly unproven) faking a document

    Furthermore, I am interested in not so much the 97% that “agree with the consensus” (that happens to include so-called “denier” scientists, by the way)

    What about the 3%? Are they automatically up for criminal prosecution by the climate police?

    All things said, it is a good reason not to enter science as a profession.

    1. It’s ironic that you cite Gleick, when Heartland used exactly the same tactics (pretending to be someone else) when they wanted a document at Bali, well before l’affaire Gleick.

      The author’s clear that he’s talking about the people who fund and organise the denial campaign – not scientists. Possibly you couldn’t be bothered to read and understand the piece?

      1. My point is, that if you are going to take people to court over supposedly presenting lies, it helps if that information that backs your case wasn’t obtained by criminal means.

        1. There’s plenty of information about the campaign to derail action in the public domain, and more will be forthcoming, I’m sure. To prove the existence of a campaign to derail and delay action is easy enough – it’s been done already – and the funding trails are steadily being uncovered.

          1. But to succeed in such a legal action would require that it can be shown that there ought not to be such a campaign to “derail action in the public domain”.
            That is not possible at present. Law courts have a higher standard for evidence than does the court of public opinion.

            1. Do you really think that in a world where climate damage is piling up, there won’t be efforts to sue the people and corporations who acted to increase those damages? Delaying action has costs: impacts will be worse than they need have been.

              The tobacco case in the US shows what can be done.

            2. ” there will not be efforts to sue the people and corporations who acted to increase those damages?”
              For the simple reason that it cannot be shown in a court of law that there is a link between climate -related damage , and the actions of those who pointed out that we have no certainty that fossil fuel emissions were the cause.
              It would have to be shown that no other cause was paramount (or possible) in causing the damage, as well as showing that the actions of skeptics increased the damage.
              Mission impossible in view of the current state of climate science.

            3. “Mission impossible” only if you’re not willing to accept what we currently know. The passage of time will only make the damages worse, and the grounds for any case more secure. I imagine there will be a great deal of anger directed at those who ran the campaign – similar to the opprobrium heaped on tobacco executives.

            4. “what we currently know. ”
              It is about what we don’t know Gareth, not about what some claim to know.
              It is clear that you believe that “we know,” but as I said , a court of law requires incontrovertible evidence; evidence that does not exist at this time.
              It is true that , in the fullness of time we will have more knowledge of climate mechanisms, but nobody in their right mind would mount such a case on the strength of the evidence at present.
              If there were no ongoing research to try and prove a link between carbon emissions and dangerous climate change then we would not have made the discoveries about climate that we have so far.
              I see that as entirely positive.

            5. Bio: You could fill suitcases full of evidence about the willful deceit and conspiracy of the right wing “institutes” (Heartland and co.), and their agendas.
              I am sure there is no shortage whatsoever of evidence in this regard.

            6. True Thomas , but that’s not the point. If it won’t stand up in a court of law then it’s worthless for your purposes , isn’t it?

            7. Bio, it may well stack up in court. The Tobacco barons probably also thought that they would get away with it…. and your opinion is just that, an opinion just as mine.

            8. Mission Impossible because a court will require you to prove everything that you claim to know.
              You will have to provide exhaustive evidence that what you claim to know is in fact the undisputed truth. And you will have to provide independent verification of that.
              Climate science is not yet at that point.

            9. Thomas,
              If there is no shortage of evidence of these “right wing campaigns”, why did the article choose to cite a case where the evidence was obtained by deceit and/or fraudulently?

            10. Heartland’s role at the centre of efforts to delay action is hardly controversial, and doesn’t depend on the board documents obtained by PG. The author could have chosen many others – not least Oreskes & Conway’s Merchants Of Doubt.

            11. I think you need to read up on the concept of balance of evidence, and then reflect on where that lies in climate science, and then with respect to the very well documented campaign to delay action.

          2. There may be plenty of information (not that I have seen it, but I will take your word for it)

            If there is plenty of information, then perhaps it is better to focus on the high quality information rather than the bits that were obtained illegally (as admitted by the perpetrator) and potentially made up.

            [Nonsense about Mann v Steyn snipped: GR]

            As Biofarmer points out, legal courts have higher standards that the courts of public opinion, and cases can easily be thrown out or backfire on the litigant if information is not presented in good faith or appears to have been manufactured.

            1. Sure Andy, we saw that with your chums from the Climate Science Coalition….
              However compared to their quixotic quest, convincing a court that Heartland and co are running a conspiracy of willful deceit would be something different. And with the Tobacco cases of the past as a precedent and with the same figures in some cases involved again, I am quite confident that a case will one day be possible to successfully bring.

    2. It is an excellent time to become a scientist and a an excellent time to teach the general public to distinguish between the cacophony of lies and deceptions created by the right wing political propaganda machine and the work of real scientists.
      And you Andy demonstrate why this is so important as even a reasonable time spend in the halls of science in pursuit of an education seems to be no guarantee for a mind that can tell politically motivated fibs from reality. That is unless you purposefully act against your own better knowledge for political reasons. The later would be risible just as the fibs, lies and deception that the Tobacco barons dished up – and that is what this article is about.

      1. “cacophony of lies and deceptions created by the right wing political propaganda ”
        Thomas that is very funny.
        But I think it belongs in the new post , along with all the other “Hot Air”.

        Have you just noticed the Tasmanian election result?
        The **** is spreading rapidly!

        1. What are you suggesting Bio? That the Tasmanian election results will have a bearing on the situation of fact in regards of Heartlands conspiracy to deceive the public and derail action on climate change?
          Or are you perhaps suggesting that election results justify the morality of the policies of the elected? In 1933 a lot of Germans voted for Adolf…. Would that validate his intellectual position?

  7. AndyS: “What about the 3%? Are they automatically up for criminal prosecution by the climate police?”
    I believe you will find that the 3% merely wrote articles where there was no reference to climate change either way. It would be a safe bet that no serious climate scientist denies climate change although they will fight like Kilkenny cats over interpretations, etc. That’s what Science is all about.

    1. “It would be a safe bet that no serious climate scientist denies climate change”

      Yes that would be a safe bet.

      If any climate scientist said that climate isn’t changing and has never changed, then I would suggest that they might need help.

        1. Do you mean Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming Gareth?
          Or do you mean Dangerous Anthropogenic Climate Change?

          When you say climate change , rational people justifiably think that you are talking about the fact that the climate changes , always has , and always will (we all hope).

          Why not say what you really mean , instead of referring to some inevitable natural process about which we have little understanding at this time?
          Surely it is not your intention to deceive, or to employ some “Orwellian” language manipulation to persuade the gullible that the climate change that we have observed so far is not a perfectly natural phenomenon, so far as we can tell?
          Is it?

          1. The UNFCCC and the IPCC use different definitions of climate change, so these are reasonable questions.

            Furthermore Richard Lindzen has described man’s influence on the climate as a “trivially true, but essentially meaningless” statement.

            Monckton (god bless his cotton socks) claims that a doubling of CO2 should cause about 1 degree of warming, which is only 0.5 degrees below the latest lower bound provided by the IPCC

            So these definitions of “denial” appear a little subjective. Perhaps a little too subjective for a court of law?

            1. Once again, you deliberately miss the point. The science is not in doubt or on trial. But those campaigning to delay action may well be at some point.

              Perhaps that’s why your Monckton and his (probably tasteless tartan) socks are huffing and puffing and harassing the author of this article?

            2. Richard Tol has done a meta-study of economic papers that show the net effect of warming, up to around 2 degrees, will be of net benefit to humanity.

              Does he fit in the category of “mis-informers”, or the authors of the underlying papers that he cites?

            3. In a couple of weeks we’ll have WG2 of AR5, and in April WG3. Tol contributed to WG2, so we’ll wait to see what that has to say, shall we?

              Warming of “up to 2C” will bring sea level rise of 20m+. I find it inconceivable that that could be seen as a “net benefit”, as it will radically transform the face of the planet.

          2. Bio, you disappoint.
            Do you honestly believe that the changes in climate and in the Earth’s heat content that we are measuring are a perfectly natural phenomenon?

            1. Thomas – it’s the ol’ magical invocation – natural variability. Doesn’t matter if they can’t describe or explain what it is, it’s natural.

            2. I honestly believe that it has not been shown that ” the changes in climate and in the Earth’s heat content that we are measuring are NOT a perfectly natural phenomenon?”

            3. Then you need to read more, and outside of Nova, µWatts etc. Start with Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming (link in blogroll), and then graduate to IPCC AR5 for the most recent summary.

            4. Well, levels of incompetence and delusion don’t necessarily correlate across all fields, but Bio’s a pretty standard type we encounter – the complacent, over-confident, insouciant denier – so I wouldn’t bet the farm on him…

            5. No worries Bio, a lot of people believe even more abstruse things such as that the world was created some 7000 years ago, dinosaur bones and all… 😉

  8. I am with the biofarmer on this one. Proving the link between cause and effect is the problem. Easy to show cigarettes cause individual deaths. Cause and effect are close. But even then, there was a long delay in bringing a suitable case.

    General air pollution is harder. But there has been litigation about air pollution crossing international borders for a long time. The Trail Smelter dispute of the 1940s led the way:

    Its harder again to show which emissions caused which individual deaths where the problem is cumulative warming effects on a global basis. Single point source emitters are the easiest targets but they have to be large. This suggests a possible order of potential liability as follows:

    Direct emitters:

    A single very large thermal power station, or better, a company running several large thermal power stations.

    A large airline company.

    A large car/truck fleet operator.

    Any other large direct emitter from one or multiple sources under its control.

    Indirect emitters (ie sellers of GHG emitting substances):

    Large coal mine or company running several such mines.

    Large oil company

    in terms of legal arguments, and for maximum impact, I favour a suit against a major airline. But that’s just me.

    Otherwise, you need a law saying its illegal to deny climate change. Comedians have already had a go at this idea – see this very clever clip:

    On a related note, I am reminded of the UK govt advertisement in 2009 that was hugely controversial because it involved telling a child a scary fairy story that involved, of all things, record floods in the UK and land being lost to the sea – imagine! Great outcry at the time. The complaint was that it was yelling fire in a crowded theatre. Ironically, that is the one item in this debate that seems to have been pulled from the web entirely:

    1. Well its different really, This is not about suing power station X but about taking a legal argument against the conspiracy to willfully misrepresent and deny the findings of science to accomplish a political agenda which if successful will cause significant delay of action to curb the damaging effects of climate change.

      The argument could perhaps be made in a similar case if an industry funded sham institute was to run a conspiracy campaign to deride and deny the science about the adverse health effects of sugar drinks in order to push consumption. This is another area where perhaps legal action at some stage in the future may follow.

      1. Perhaps you could also apply that to purveyors of fast foods? For example, McDonalds and Burger King?

        Perhaps you could take car manufacturers to court when there is a clear linkage between driving cars and fatalities?

        Then, of course, the elephant in the room are the brewers and winemakers that sell goods that have a known detrimental effect on health.

        Then there are the cheese makers, whose products case our arteries to block and our cholesterol levels to rise, shortening life spans.

    2. Perhaps if you wish to take airline companies to court you could start with Richard Branson

      After all, he runs a multi-billion dollar corporation, has hired a well-known climate sceptic (Burt Rutan) to build his spaceship for Virgin Galactic, an d has “previous” in a conviction for tax evasion.

      I expect a sentence of house detention on his private Carribean island of Necker would be a suitable punishment, where he can enjoy the benefits of a low tax regime and endless days kite-surfing in the lagoon.

  9. What about the responsibility of government? If there is a disease outbreak, or conflict happening somewhere, our government usually responds quickly by warning the public of the dangers. With regard climate change, there are no warnings, not even a mention.

    Also, look at the labelling on cigarette packets. What about similar style warnings on all petrol pumps? Or do we really need a large number of people to die first from the effects of climate change before someone decides it might be time to do something drastic like reduce emissions by ~5%?

    I guess its just like the CTV building, we could have elevated the building code to prevent such a tragedy from happening. Instead we sweep potential threats under the carpet and then act after it is too late. Why not, it sure makes economic sense. Although, if the city council/builders/architects were sued for negligence, they could stand to lose a lot more money than the minimal cost savings of cutting corners in the building code.

    There needs to be some accountability, I think that the buck stops with government, they must assess the risks, and set the rules accordingly.

  10. Relevant to the matter of legal instruments and specific events is the current pollution in Paris and a couple of actions – a “criminal complaint” filed by ‘Ecology without borders’ and government action making mass transport free for 3 days to encourage people to leave their cars at home.

  11. 2 degrees wouldn’t just raise sea levels. There’s the increased heatwaves/droughts probably alternating with increased rain/floods. Plus seasons getting out of whack for crops, insects, animals, diseases etc. The melting glaciers would disrupt seasonal river flows, monsoons will also be disrupted. Then there’s the changes we are seeing linked to the loss of Arctic ice. All these changes are starting to be observed with a mere 0.8 deg rise, it’s hard to imagine how he claims 2 deg would be beneficial.
    Unless he just assumed that Auckland is warmer than Dunedin therefore if Dunnedin had Auckland weather Otago would benefit, without considering the implications of more heat in the atmosphere.

    1. Well you’ll have to ask Richard Tol and the authors he cited what they meant.

      You might get a bit of time to ask at their trials before they are taken away

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