The Criminology of Global Warming

Pulp mill, Longview, Washington. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Some – like Exxon since 1957 – have been aware that the world is facing global warming that has all the signs to render earth uninhabitable. At least with United Nations’ IPPC and NASA reporting on global warming, others have realised that we also face an unprecedented threat. Potentially, all of this is an issue of criminology. Somewhat similar to biology and psychology, criminology is the science of crime and criminal behaviour. Global warming can be seen from an environmental, geological, atmospheric, capitalist, etc. perspective, but it can also be seen as an issue of criminology.

Like lawyers and judges, etc., criminologists also prefer tide and often somewhat legalistic definitions to work with. For them, global warming is simply defined as the rising of the earth’s temperature. At the same time, climate change is seen as the inter-related effects of rising temperatures on our environment and on human beings.

Criminology comes into play when global warming is caused by harmful behaviour that contributes to the problem. It also comes in when human, state or corporate actions prevent responses to global warming. At the centre of criminology is the idea that a corporation or someone can commit a wrong. In a second step, criminology stresses that these wrongs demand a response.

One might simply argue that a crime is what the law defines as a crime. The l’idée fixe of malum prohibitum is, for example, that something is not so much a crime because it is inherently wrong, but because the laws of a state prohibit it. This idea lets some off the hook – for example, those who perpetrated the Holocaust. Nazi Germany certainly did not have a law that states, if you kill communists, trade unionists, democrats, homosexuals, Gipsies, and Jews, you will be punished. Instead, the opposite was the case. Auschwitz fulfilled every single regulation down to the German building code.

Set against malum prohibitum is the concept of malum in se. This says that something is wrong by its very nature and independent of the regulations governing the particular conduct. Today almost all Germans know, that the Holocaust and genocide are inherently wrong independent of a country hand its laws that prevent them. The legal concept of malum in se also applies to global warming and ecology. Criminology sees both as a complex interaction of our non-human nature. Criminology also sees it as a global phenomenon which climate change and global warming, by definition, are.

In a further step, one might argue that global warming also impacts negatively on the rights of other species, in particular, animals. This also means the right to live free of torture, abuse and the destruction of their habitat. The philosophy of Utilitarianism supports such concepts. This philosophy states that when an animal can feel pain, we human beings have the moral responsibility to prevent this from occurring. In other words, we have a moral duty to protect animals and the environment on which they depend.

But global warming not only applies to animals and plant life, but global warming also tells us that nobody on earth will be immune from the impact of global warming. Global warming criminology focuses on two elements: firstly, it concentrates on perpetrators like Shell, Exon, Chevron, Total, Aramco, Rosnef, Gazprom, etc.; and secondly, it focuses on the victims of crimes which are the environment, people, plants, and animals. This also includes those who are making the problem of global warming worse. Overall, one might see three types of justices:

1/ Environmental justice: the health and safety of the global environment;

2/ Ecological justice: conserving and protecting ecological wellbeing; and

3/ Species justice: shielding animals from global warming and abuse.

In all of this, one needs to consider that crime, crime control, and justice are socially and historically constructed. The world is relatively clear on the crime of genocide. Still, there are noticeable absentees and non-signatory states to the international criminal court. These are, among others, India, Indonesia, China, Israel, Sudan, and the USA. Despite all this, the world is even less clear on considering global warming a crime. Not all countries see the coming of ecocide. Ecocide describes environmental harm seen as a crime caused by human action.

It is imperative to realise that Kant’s intentionality is not needed here. Quite often, global warming harms are not caused by intentional acts as such. Big Oil, for example, is not deliberately planning to cause global warming; it is not intentionally destroying nature. Their intention is profit-maximisation. Nature is destroyed along the way, as a by-product, a spill-over, a side issue. Nonetheless, this side-issue may kill nature and our environment, and, perhaps, even us.

Set against the destruction of the earth is the idea of stewardship. This means that the earth is held in trust by us – human beings – and that we have an obligation to maintain a healthy environment. This relates to ecocentrism which views animals, plants, etc. as rights-holders and as such, the duty of care is invoked.

It refers back to the moral and legal obligation of human beings to care for our environment. But it also means preventing ecocide from happening. Ecocide is not the same as homicide, suicide and genocide. Still, one might argue that ecocide is a form of genocide because it is through topographical “geocide” that genocide is engineered – the killing of people through the killing of a geographical area or perhaps earth itself.

In the case of global warming criminology, it can indeed be the case that perpetrators and responders to global warming are one and the same. They are states as well as companies. Global warming criminology examines environmental crime committed by corporations, states and governmental agencies. Global warming criminology knows four versions of this:

+ First, it is possible that states facilitate companies and corporations in committing environmental crimes.

+ Second, there are cases in which the state enables environmental crimes. This happens when states fail to regulate environmental protection or when state deliberately ignores environmental crimes committed by corporations.

+ Third, there are also environmental crimes committed by states, but corporations initiated these crimes. This occurs, for example, when corporations used their power to get states to engage in criminal actions.

+ Fourth, there are environmental crimes in which corporations supply the means to states to commit such environmental crimes.

Inaction by states and politics towards environmental crimes is often excused by claiming a denial of responsibility. This occurs when states and politicians deny that human and corporate action causes global warming. It also occurs when states and politicians deny that harm was done and people, animals, and the environment are injured. One of the preferred excuses is, for example, “this is just a natural disaster”.

Next, there is also the denial of victims. It is claimed that those are the poor in the Third World and their corrupt governments. But there is also what has been called the condemnation of the condemners. This occurs when politicians attack climate science and scientists. Finally, there is also an appeal to a higher authority like the national interest and the economy. Whenever this is claimed, usually human beings and the environment suffers.

States can be easily implicated in environmental crimes when they, for example, subsidise coal-fired power station and the mining industry. Here, global warming criminology focuses on the consequences and causes. Hence some offences contribute to global warming like tree clearing, the illegal destruction of forests, unlicensed and even licensed pollution, the destruction of habitats, etc.

But there are also crimes that occur as a consequence of global warming, for example, stealing water during a drought and the illegal killing of animals as a source of food. And there are also crimes associated with global warming like riots, arson and even homicide and gang warfare. Finally, there are also regulatory offences like fraud, misreporting, and regulatory corruption.

Criminology looks in three ways at global warming crimes: it examines the characteristics of the offender or victim which takes place in the realm of psychology; it takes the situation in which a crime occurs (the immediate circumstances); and finally, it also looks at the structural level, e.g. society, capitalism, etc.

From the standpoint of all three, one can see how high temperatures, for example, relate to crime because, among other things, humans become more irritated as temperatures increase. Global warming criminology knows this as GAAM – the general affective aggression model. As hot weather increases under global warming, people become more aggressive in their response to other people. GAAM predicts that global warming will lead to additional murders, rape, aggressive assaults and robberies, along with other serious crimes.

Global warming will also increase what global warming criminology calls RAT (routine activity theory) – crimes are likely to occur if there is a motivated offender, a suitable target, and lack of a capable guardian. This becomes even more prevalent when criminogenic mechanisms are in place. When there are increased strains on policing resources, reduced control, reduced social support, beliefs that favour crime, opportunities for crime, and a marked increase in social, economic, and environmental conflict.

Virtually all of this will lead to an increase in environmental victims, also known as environmental casualties. These will increase across countries as borders mean very little for global warming. It is estimated that 46 countries (2.7bn people) are “high” risk countries while a further 56 countries (1.2bn people) are seen as “potential” risk countries. Unfortunately, the impact of global warming will be the greatest on those least able to cope with it. On this, the current fortress mentality and us vs them thinking will not be helpful.

Previous disasters have already shown that global warming constitutes a powerful driver of natural disasters. When politicians talk of “natural” disasters, they implicitly erase the global warming component in the equation. In such disasters, global warming criminology speaks of pre-disaster crimes such as poor construction standards; disaster crimes like looting; and post-disaster crimes such as insurance fraud, misappropriation of aid funds, etc.

Due to global warming, natural disasters are set to increase, and so will global warming driven conflicts over resources. These take on four broad categories: conflicts over natural resources; conflicts over declining resources; conflicts that destroy the environment; and conflicts over the extraction process (e.g. illegal mining, etc.). Such disasters and environmental conflicts will only add to the number of climate refugees which the United Nations estimates might range between 25 million and one billion by the year 2050.

Many of these will be environmental victims. Overall, global warming criminology knows three categories of environmental victims. There are human-environmental victims, but there are also specific environmental regions that can be the victim of a disaster or global warming. Finally, animals and plants are also victims of global warming.

For example, it is estimated that during the 2020 Australian bushfire, about three billion animals died. The scale and the severity of these bushfires did not occur independently of global warming. Apart from this, it is commonly understood that children are more vulnerable to a variety of ailments and environmental risks, but children are rarely considered, especially in victimology.

Just as much as the eleven men who died on BP’s oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the media focused on the environmental disaster which in the end came down to compensation – not a criminal offence. Here is the power of corporate public relations: the word “crime” is not even mentioned in reference to the Deep Water Horizon disaster.

Corporations and their CEOs – who “carry such heavy responsibilities”, we are told continuously – are off the hook, once again. These corporations can carry on externalising their pathologies regardless of the environmental harm they cause, lives they destroy, communities they damage, species they exterminate, and environments they damage.

Inevitably, all of this leads to the ultimate dilemma of global warming criminology. Global warming criminology’s Catch-22 is between the system and the perpetrators. By the system, critical global warming criminology means corporate capitalism. By perpetrators, it means individuals and perhaps even companies. The crucial problem is that the system is seen as blameworthy but not responsible as criminology focuses on the individual – not the system.

On the other hand, the individual – even an individual company – can be made responsible for environmental crimes and can be prosecuted. But that – and this is the ultimate downfall of global warming criminology – lets the system off the hook. In short, criminology’s focus on the individual prevents the field of global warming criminology from developing strategies to fight global warming.

What is needed is the criminalisation of carbon emissions and the forced shutdown of harmful industries. Yet, worse is to come. There is not even a legally binding instrument for the protection of the environment. In addition, very powerful corporations, supported by corporate lobbying, “the best politicians money can buy”, and corporate mass media – avoid legal accountability anywhere in the world.

Instead of a tough law and order approach when it comes to the destruction of the environment, we have things like the Stockholm Declaration. It includes a fundamental right to live in an environment of quality that permits a life of dignity and wellbeing. No word that a fight for climate justice must involve the assertion of democratic control over land, air, water, and energy.

No world on the polluter principle – those who pollute should rectify the mess they have created. Those who have created the mess are advance industrialised countries. Roughly 75% of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions from 1750 to 2005 were produced by the developed world. The term “developed world” actually means profit-maximising corporations. Hence, corporations must be held to account – not just nation-states, if global warming criminology is serious.


Rob White’s Climate Change Criminology is published by Bristol University Press.

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