Could Fossil Fuel Giants Be Tried for Homicide?

Could Fossil Fuel Giants Be Tried for Homicide?

It’s very easy for these companies to be dehumanised – for their names and logos to stand as representations of the climate crisis itself, rather than a boardroom or office complex filled with people making decisions each and every day that directly impact individuals living in Chad where flooding and famine affect every one of its citizens, or families in Democratic Republic of Congo where a history of Ebola outbreaks is being exacerbated by the rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, or households half the world away where the fallout of the 2022 wildfires in the suburbs of London is still lingering. 

But what if they were held truly accountable? What if, like a gunman or a drunken driver, they were put on trial for their poor choices and disrespect for human life? 

In the US, they may be one step closer to doing so. 

Introducing The Public Citizen

This time last year, the public advocacy group Public Citizen proposed something that, if successful, could change the outlook for the public – and for the private sector – more than anything else in human history. They proposed litigation against fossil fuel companies – charges of homicide for those who are directly exacerbating the climate crisis. 

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. We know beyond any shadow of a doubt that these companies are the driving force behind global warming. If it weren’t for the exhaustive efforts to extract oil, coal, and gas from the earth, the constant reassertion of fossil fuel fatalism and their opposition to the transition to clean energy sources like wind and commercial solar, countless deaths and disasters could have been avoided. 

On the other hand, it sounds like a scenario that could never come to fruition. Like any large company that produces and sells harmful substances to the general public, they are surely protected by armies of legal experts and robust strategies for shirking any real sense of responsibility.

According to Public Citizen, no – litigation is not only possible, but it’s the right thing to do. It will be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. 

A consumer advocacy group based in the US, Public Citizen stands as an advocate for the general public – an opposition to the lobbyists that the world’s largest corporations have on their side. The group has been around for more than 50 years, and its reputation has been hard-earned in courts and other halls of power going up against some of the most powerful foes of the modern age. 

This makes them the perfect adversary to the fossil fuel industry, but how far can it go? 

The Theory Behind the Movement

One of the industry’s greatest sources of power is its ability to evade consequences. Protestors have been screaming the names of these corporations for decades – headlines filled with stories from oil spills to tax evasion mean that none of us can separate the devastatingly negative from their logos. Making them take accountability for their crimes against humanity would require deft legal manoeuvring, and that’s exactly what Public Citizen proposed. 

The group’s argument is simple: there is an overabundance of evidence demonstrating the harm their daily business is having on the world – evidence that would push an impartial third party beyond any reasonable doubt that they are the catalysts behind the crisis. Their impact is represented by unprecedented harm, and their knowledge of that mounting evidence means that they continue to cause harm in a ‘culpable mental state’. 

The group argues that their ability to apply the terms of criminal law to the actions of these companies is compelling proof of their legal culpability. 

But it’s not just about making them legally culpable. These companies are used to the friction of laws and policies in place to protect the public, and they have all dutifully paid their fines – fines that, often, represent a fraction of their bottom lines – over the years in the face of PR disasters like oil spills. After that, they’ve continued on until the next time things turn sour. 

But a charge of homicide would be a very different story. The consequences for being found guilty of causing the death of another – whether unintentionally through manslaughter or intentionally through murder – are far more severe. 

Or, at least, that’s what Public Citizen argue. Being able to charge these companies with homicide could, they claim, reshape the ways in which companies structure themselves and operate. 

The trouble? In some capacity, it has happened before…

Corporations and Charges of Homicide

The Guardian identified two cases of corporations – both PG&E and BP – being successfully charged with manslaughter. In each case, the punishment was (once again) fines. And, while those fines amounted to billions of dollars, this is nowhere near enough to cripple one of the giants of the fossil fuel industry. Even if it were, there are plenty more who can take their place. 

When speaking about the fossil fuel companies, Christopher Kutz explains that their complicity is interwoven (perhaps intractably) with the complicity of others – policymakers, world leaders, and the general public. In a traditional homicide case, such a complex web of complicity simply doesn’t factor. He likens this to a ‘black hole of liability’. 

Another key adversary to Public Citizens is the measures these companies have taken to demonstrate a commitment (or appearance of commitment) to mitigating the climate crisis. These measures are often insubstantial and superficially done. For instance, Shell was a prominent follower of carbon offsetting – a practice that has been likened to the sale of absolution to those who follow Catholicism.

Despite the fact that many of us recognise the breakability of their commitment to climate reform, it’s very likely that these measures could be represented as mitigating steps taken by the corporations to minimise their negative impact on the world. 

This, combined with the complicity of those outside of the corporations, could mean that a charge of homicide – and particularly a charge of voluntarily causing death – is incredibly difficult to achieve, even for a group with a proven track record of running up against large corporations with extensive networks of lobbyists in Washington DC. 

What do Public Citizen Have Against These Corporations? 

None of this is to say that the case against fossil fuel giants is futile. It may still be possible to find that breakthrough moment in the courts, and to gain an initial foothold in the mountain of moral evasiveness that they have built around themselves. After all, the bottom line is simple: these companies have committed, and are still committing, real harm to human beings around the world. 

There are many civil lawsuits already gaining traction against these giants, and the claims within those lawsuits may hold the key to bridging the gap between civil and criminal law. Their ‘counterparts’ could be levelled against the corporations in order to pave the way for a charge of homicide – reckless or negligent.

There is a great deal of confidence in Public Citizen’s plan, and that confidence will only be shored up by the gathering of more and more evidence that these corporations are causing and exacerbating the climate crisis. Every day, our understanding of global warming grows; every day, the list of evidence demonstrating how many lives are ruined or lost as a result of fossil fuels gets longer. 

Of course, there is still doubt. After all, nothing like this has ever been undertaken – and least of all won – in history. But, from war crimes to the crimes committed by individuals, holding those who bring harm to the world accountable for their actions is possible. Not only is it possible, but it’s essential for reaffirming that distinction between what’s right and what’s wrong. 

What Will Happen Next? 

It will take time. History’s most pivotal moments require countless hours of preparation and forethought. Public Citizen needs to compile enough evidence and enough counterarguments to demonstrate that the fossil fuel giants have operated in spite of the knowledge that they are putting innocent lives in jeopardy – and not innocent to it.

It is important to keep in mind that this is not just a fight against one company but against a company with a huge list of supporters, lobbyists, and contacts with vested interests in their ability to keep harming the world. 

If Public Citizen can overcome those challenges, then we may all bear witness to one of the most transformative and desperately needed moments in human history. 

Atlantic Renewables

Atlantic Renewables are a solar PV design and installation company, providing affordable solutions in Manchester, Cheshire and throughout the North West.