Leading economist calls fossil fuel expansion a crime against humanity

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“We need to up the ante for those pursuing business as usual, the relentless expansion of oil and gas infrastructure that is causing these problems and guaranteeing that they will be worse in the future.”

by Marc Lee
Progressive Economics Forum, June 23, 2011

Marc Lee is senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and chair of the Progressive Economics Forum. He has wriiten on a wide range of topics from poverty and inequality to globalization and international trade to public services and regulation.

After at 2010 that was one of the warmest years on record, 2011 has shown us astonishing patterns of extreme weather worldwide. It would take a long time to make the full list, but you know what I mean: tornadoes, floods, drought, record cold in some parts, record heat in others, hailstorms (Al Gore does a pretty good summary of the state of things here). A report for Al Jazeera tallied up the damages in the US alone at $27-28 billion, so far this year. They go on further to quote Swiss Re (global re-insurance company) that freak weather losses are about $130 billion per year now, compared to about $25 billion per year in the 1980s.

Can we pin this all on climate change? Some say yes, others are more cautious about how much we can cite human greenhouse gas emissions. But all agree that what we are seeing is consistent with what climate scientists have been predicting for decades. Would those tornadoes have been averted in the absence of too much carbon in the air, or would they have happened anyway but packing an extra punch due to a warmer planet? We can only speak in probabilities not black and white, but there is a high probability that the extremes we have been seeing are part of our new 21st century climate.

Lots of people are connecting these dots. Canada’s mainstream media is an exception that continue to report extreme weather events on one page and oil and gas developments in the business section, as if there is no connection whatsoever. Worse, during the second (or was it the third?) round of tornadoes, the Vancouver Province ran a story, “No Link Between Tornadoes and Climate Change” (which I think ran through the CanWest media empire). It was a puff article quoting one person who made such a comment with no counter-point, but what is interesting is that some editor felt it necessary to make that a banner headline.

I think this wall of denial is about to fall in the next few years, and with it we need to usher in a new era of climate action. Serious climate action, not the slow and gentle first steps we’ve witnessed to date in places like BC and California (whereas other juridictions have done nothing at all). That means shifting to zero fossil fuels in the energy system as soon as possible, aggressively making our society more energy efficient, and redeveloping our urban spaces into complete communities that are substantially more pedestrian and bike-friendly, and with major investments in public transit.

But I think we need to up the ante for those pursuing business as usual, the relentless expansion of oil and gas infrastructure that is causing these problems and guaranteeing that they will be worse in the future. Actions that lead to mass deaths and displacements, either directly due to a weather event or indirectly from impacts on land and livelihoods, beg for some accountability. I’m no international law-talking guy, but I believe that these things can only be called crimes against humanity.

Let’s say that again. Efforts to expand the oil and gas industry, like theKeystone XL and Enbridge pipelines, are crimes against humanity. Expanding the coal industry, like the proposal to export megatonnes of Washington state coal, is not just bad environmental policy, but a crime against humanity.

The Economics of Climate Adaptation Working Group, including Swiss Re and other prominent grey-suited observers, calculate that weather disasters over the past 50 years have led to $1 trillion in losses and 800,000 fatalities. Those human and financial losses are only going to get worse. It is not polar bears and “future generations” we are talking about. It is the current impacts on people around the world who had nothing to do with the problem. It is about Canada’s First Nations, whose constitutional rights have literally been run over by those massive mining trucks that ply the Alberta tar sands.

I may be willing to give a grace period for actions take before 2000 or so, on the grounds that we did not know better (though we actually did). Nor would I punish regular folks (including me) who burn fossil fuels because of the structure of the world we live in and the lack of alternatives. This is about the dealers not the addicts; about the need for urgent change in response to the unfolding crisis.

It matters not whether such actions today are “legal” (almost all genocides were legal at the time) but they are deeply immoral and wrong. Major shareholders and senior executives in big fossil fuel industries – and the politicians that dote on them – need to understand that their profiteering off of destabilizing the climate will pay a price. That’s a little thing we call justice.

Marc Lee is senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and chair of the Progressive Economics Forum


  • Jeff — “leading” doesn’t mean we agree with everything he says — but he is one of the best-known economists in Canada.

  • I wouldn’t characterize Marc Lee as a “leading economist”. He’s a social democrat who supports carbon taxes and other consumption taxes as instruments of social policy. Then he seems surprised when the result of these taxes, implemented by right-wing governments, is more income disparity!

  • Right now virtually all of us are on a treadmill, the economic growth at any cost treadmill and the ciosts are rocketing. Some of us want desperately to get off the treadmill yet there are still others who either do not know or choose to ignore the rising costs and continue with what for them is business as usual. I completely agree that such people should be indicted for crimes not only against humanity but also against the whole of our bio-sphere.

  • You could go even further and argue that the energy industry is just an essential part of global capitalism which inately requires continuous growth. Such growth, of course, is mathematically impossible. Just imagine the resources necessary for, say, 3% global GDP growth per year with a population which might hit 10+ billion in the next few decades, and the fact that in theory, at least, huge percentages of this larger global population will wish to have the same living standards as those enjoyed by the developed nations. Following this logic, then, global capitalism itself, and those who define our global existence (transnational corporations, military, governments) are equally as guilty of crimes against humanity.