What are climate crimes?
“I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want.”
Said Andy Warhol as early as the last century. Little did he know someone was and still is, ruining the beautiful painting that is our planet to get a return. These actions, which are obviously morally deplorable, are now also legally being prosecuted, under the name of Climate Crimes. Time to learn more.
Climate crimes in history
Climate crimes, also known as environmental crimes or eco-crimes, refer to illegal activities that harm the environment. These crimes have serious ecological, economic, and social consequences. On the ecological side, they often have a direct impact on climate change.
Climate crimes are not new. Let’s think of the case of asbestos.
Just think about the production of asbestos that began in 1906 in Casale Monferrato by the Eternit company. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s emerged the first cases of worker and resident death. Asbestos has been recognized as a definite carcinogen material. In 2014, the Constitutional Court acquitted the company's representatives as the environmental disaster offense had expired.
Jumping to the end of the last century, some American journalists, using internal sources, have demonstrated that a great deception has been ongoing since the 1970s. The largest fossil fuel companies were aware of the irreparable damage their activities were causing to the environment and the population, but they deliberately chose to remain silent to protect their interests.
In recent times, climate crimes have become a more and more central topic in the climate change debate. More and more citizens, individually or in associations, are demanding that those who commit these crimes be held accountable. It is only fair that those who commit climate crimes are brought to justice, as with other offenses.
Examples of climate crimes
Here are some examples of climate crimes that everybody can relate to. They harm the environment and the people who live and rely on that environment’s resources.
Illegal deforestation, including the unauthorized cutting down of trees, which contributes to soil destruction, loss of biodiversity, and ultimately loss of oxygen
Overfishing/fishing in protected areas, leading to loss of biodiversity or illegal hunting and trade of endangered species
Illegal dumping of toxic waste into the environment, causing water pollution
And of course…
Exceeding emissions limits set by environmental regulations, which contributes to air pollution, climate change, and health troubles
Some of these eco-crimes are specifically related to climate change. They can lead to events that result in environmental disasters and subsequent loss of human lives.
For instance, the Puerto Rican community has filed a lawsuit against oil companies operating in the area, accusing them of contributing to the tragedy of Hurricane Maria, which caused over 3,000 deaths and widespread devastation, including the destruction of crucial crops like coffee.
A highlight on corporate conduct
But Puerto Rico is not the only state to have initiated a lawsuit against oil companies. On this topic, we've heard from Jay Rossiter, a California litigation attorney specializing in environmental liability issues.
Jay discussed what has recently happened in California.
“In September 2023, the State of California filed a lawsuit against five major oil companies and the American Petroleum Institute, alleging that the defendants lied about the risks of climate change, suppressed critical information from policyholders and the public, and engaged in an active disinformation campaign designed to deceive the public about the science. California joins a growing list of other US states and municipalities that seek to hold big oil accountable for billions of dollars in damage caused by climate change.
California alleges that the harm could have been minimized or mitigated if the public had been provided with clear, consistent, and scientifically accepted information about the risks of burning fossil fuels. The lawsuit requests both equitable and monetary relief, including the establishment of an abatement fund to assist those damaged by climate disasters and orders preventing misleading statements of unfair conduct in the future.
The legal proceedings initiated by California and other US governmental bodies are civil and not criminal in nature. But, they seek extensive damages, including punitive damages, which is only awarded in California if there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is guilty of oppression, fraud, or malice. To be sure, criminal actions can be brought under the right circumstances to address certain environmental harms or particularly egregious corporate conduct. Examples of this include criminal proceedings against various utilities when grossly negligent conduct directly contributed to the loss of human lives or criminal actions against corporations that willfully discharge toxic substances into the air or water. But, the legal vehicle getting the most attention for addressing the devastating effects of climate change — and the one placing targeted companies most at risk — are the civil actions alleging public nuisance, failure to warn, false or misleading advertising and/or the failure to properly disclose material risks.”
Should / are climate crimes be prosecuted?
If you are a reader of this blog, you can imagine what our position is on it. Looking at this matter from a mere legislative standpoint, despite the uneven and evolving nature of legislation, and the mistaken belief that climate crimes have uncertain legal foundations, some norms are there.
For example, internationally, 195 countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2015. The treaty was conceived within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) and represents the most extensive and universally recognized source on climate issues.
It's worth mentioning that the European Union had already issued Directive 2008/50 in 2008, a cornerstone of European air quality protection. Its goal is to maintain and, if possible, improve air quality to safeguard populations, vegetation, and ecosystems as a whole. It also sets limit values for sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), lead, benzene, and carbon monoxide.
Is this enough? Certainly not. Legislation on climate crimes is still a heterogeneous and evolving discipline; it is crucial and needs to be revised and evolved. Despite existing laws, human actions tend to disregard moral and legal laws daily. However, there is growing mobilization from the grassroots, especially by younger generations, to address these issues in a concrete and decisive manner. Another good news though is that the number of legal cases is increasing.
Recently, six young Portuguese individuals filed a complaint against the inaction of European states, including Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, with the European Court of Human Rights. According to the young people, the states' inaction constitutes a serious violation of human rights. They are demanding that governments change their climate policies. This pioneering case, if successful, could represent a groundbreaking development, binding states to revise their climate laws.
In the Italian Po Valley region, thanks to legal advisors, citizens can seek financial compensation by demonstrating that they have lived for an extended period in municipalities where the limits imposed by the 2008/50/CE Community Directive were consistently exceeded. The goal of the initiative is not solely economic; it aims to draw attention to an issue that has not been adequately addressed and is often marginalized. Breathing clean air is a right for all, and it's time to enforce it.
In the beginning of November, in England, the legal group "Fighting Dirty" initiated a legal case to challenge the sale of agricultural fertilizers rich in microplastics and "persistent chemicals." Water companies collect dried sewage sludge, process it, and sell it to agriculture in the form of "biosolids."
However, these fertilizers are not purified, and thus contain a dangerously high amount of pollutants, commonly referred to as microplastics. In support of this, research conducted by the University of Cardiff and Manchester revealed that the fields in the United Kingdom have the highest levels of microplastic pollution. The Environmental Agency had promised to address the situation by 2023 but appears to have reversed its position. For this reason, the legal group decided to initiate legal proceedings to be judged in the High Court.
How climate crimes relate to climate justice
Climate justice is a concept that addresses the intersection of environmental and social justice in the context of climate change. The concept is based on the fact that the impacts of climate change are not equally distributed; vulnerable communities often bear a disproportionate burden of the consequences of climate change.
For example, we saw this with the pandemic: the shortage of vaccines was most severe in the poorest regions of the world.
So, indigenous populations have the smallest ecological footprint but are among the most affected by the effects of climate change. Last September, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) accepted the petition filed by eight indigenous inhabitants of the Torres Strait against Australia for inaction against climate change. The committee condemned Australia, stating that it was violating the human rights of the islanders. The decision represents a historic event for all indigenous communities, traditionally a minority that pays a high price for the environmental crimes caused by industrialization and progress.
In conclusion, what we see ahead of us is not just a fight against climate crimes; it's a call to defend our planet's beauty and diversity. It's an inspiring journey marked by determination, vigilance, and collective responsibility. We hold the brush to continue painting our planet's masterpiece for generations to come, a legacy that transcends boundaries and personal interests.