Stephen Gottlieb: Environmental Degradation As Murder

Feb 18, 2014

I don’t think of myself as a motivational speaker. I try to explain, and hope my commentaries provide helpful explanations. But this time, I want to challenge and motivate everyone to take strong action on the environmental catastrophe facing us.

We know burning gas, oil, coal and wood release carbon and help produce global warming. Some of that carbon acidifies the oceans when it’s absorbed. Air and water contamination destroy our food supplies, by destroying habitat and causing draught, among other ways. That destroys us. Global warming and acidification threaten the oxygen we breathe. They threaten to sicken us with new diseases. The science is now well known.

Law generally defines murder as an intentional killing. And we infer that people intend the natural and probable consequences of their actions. And we know. Aren’t those of us who stand by guilty of mass murder-suicide, intending the natural and probable consequence of our use of carbon fuels, the death of many, perhaps billions, of human beings. Isn’t it reckless indifference to human life to fire global warming into this crowded planet.

That’s both a legal and a moral question. We reserve our harshest punishment for murder, whether by terrorists or thugs. A portion of the population defines abortion as murder and devotes themselves to its eradication. They, and all of us, should be even more devoted to stopping global warming and ocean acidification. The lives of literally billions of people are at stake. From a religious perspective, we are killing God’s creation. There is no moral alternative to taking action and doing all we can to deal with this problem.

And by insisting we can do something about it, we have the tools: regulation, carbon or BTU taxes, international tariffs, and our purchasing decisions. We also know that the rapidly growing world population, quadrupling within the past century, is destroying our environment but we’re too paralyzed politically to address the population explosion beyond our borders. The impending destruction of people and lives by injecting carbon into our atmosphere is the biggest mass crime imaginable and yet we dawdle, fighting other battles.

When I was a child we worried that nuclear war with the Soviet Union could annihilate life on earth. That wasn’t acceptable and we worked to avoid it. But Stalin, Khrushchev and their successors could also, sensibly, restrain themselves.

The environment doesn’t restrain itself. Upsetting the oceanic carbon balance kills marine life, our fisheries and aquatic food supplies. Upsetting the atmospheric heat balance brings droughts, plagues and floods. New York City tries to prepare for the next flood but global warming will overwhelm it. Dykes and barriers will only briefly put off the inevitable. I told an engineer that he should move to a home higher than eight feet above sea level. He responded that if sea rise made his home unlivable, New York would no longer function as a city, its arteries would be submerged, and the people refugees. I suggested moving up here where we are a couple of hundred feet above sea level. He responded that if millions become refugees we wouldn’t be safe either.

Now Elizabeth Kolbert has written The Sixth Extinction about us. My wife and I have visited places where human civilizations have been extinguished. Kolbert is not whistling Dixie. The environment is a cruel and vengeful task-master.

Using every method available to stop injecting carbon into air and water, is the legal, moral and religious imperative.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

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