The Pillory at Charing Cross in Microcosm of London 1809
It is now nearly three decades since physicist James Hanson, then head of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, warned the United States Senate in formal testimony of the dangers of continued CO2 emissions . The mountains of supportive evidence accumulated since then is surely enough to convince any reasonably thoughtful person of the urgency of the problem. In spite of this a recent Yale University survey found that 30% of Americans continue to deny that the earth is warming and 45 % deny that human activity is a major contributor.
Those deniers, I believe, fall into three categories The majority are likely those never adequately exposed to critical thinking. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds – poor schooling, family dysfunction, lack of mentors or role models, economic hardship – all colluding to give daily survival and momentary pleasure precedence over learning the skill of thinking things through or carefully considering the sources of information. Others are unfortunate in very different ways, living lives so privileged, thanks to the work and good luck of forbears, that it is simply a fact of life that good things happen – the refrigerator is always full, college admission comes as a result of family philanthropy, inheritance is carefully tended by “wealth managers” who magically open doors to “the goals you set”. There is no need for critical thinking on their part either.
But there is a small, sinister third group who, for reasons of rank self-interest, have used their wealth and/or power to sponsor a sophisticated campaign designed to convince others that talk of human-induced climate change is “fake science.” Experts in climatology are accused of grandstanding and industry-sponsored research is trotted out to support claims that the issue is not yet settled. Without the disinformation campaign paid for and promoted by this third group things would be different. Our country would still be a member of the Paris Climate Accord, the fraction of our energy coming from green sustainable methods like sun and wind would be much greater and we would be rivalling Europe in the speed of our pivot away from fossil fuels. But instead the Denial Bogeyman thrives.
The crime presently being committed by those wealthy and powerful individuals who have been leading the charge merits adoption of a new word. “Terracide” comes to mind.. Though the term has cropped up now and then ( The Hammer of God by Arthur C.Clark, 1993; Ethics for a Small Planet, by Daniel C. Maguire & Larry L. Rasmussen 1998; Greenstone Rising by Andrea Wright 2013), it has yet to have achieved wide enough usage to merit an entry in the Merriam-Webster online or print Dictionary). Nonetheless, it surely deserves more widespread use. For unless the by-now highly improbable happens and humanity is able to drastically reduce its CO2 production, the heinousness of this crime will surely surpass mere genocide as not only millions of humans die of disease, displacement and famine but in addition untold numbers of other living species and whole ecosystems disappear forever. Like the perpetrators of genocide, however, many of the influential leaders of denial will try to slink into the shadows and scrub history of their complicity. I think they deserve something different.
Though the concept of “war crimes” can be traced from the 1400’s, it took nearly 600 years for a widely agreed upon legal definition of inappropriate wartime behavior to be formally codified at the Hague Conventions of the early twentieth century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_crime. And despite the fact that “crimes against humanity” was a phrase introduced to describe actions taken by Leopold II in the Congo Free State in 1890 and was used frequently in the war crime trials following both world wars, codification of such a crime in international law has not yet occurred. So there is no reason to imagine that there will be conventional legal tools to punish perpetrators of terracide within the foreseeable future. Indeed, there is not even a way to assure that history, as it unfolds, will appropriately vilify the major leaders of the denial conspiracy.
Fortunately, there are many well-intentioned ongoing efforts to discredit this group of climate criminals. Non-profits like 350.org, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, the Union of Concerned Scientists and many others have all fought back. Not surprisingly, many of these organizations have a long history of other types of environmental protection but sadly this is like waving a red flag in front of the bulls of industry and those espousing less government intervention on any front. The arguments raised in support of climate science are also, paradoxically, undercut by their reliance on detailed careful research and sophisticated modeling – epistemological methods many of the deniers…….well…… simply deny. So if facts and reason are ineffective, and there is no reason to expect deterrence to come from a threat of punishment imposed through a national or global legal system perhaps we might consider public shaming.
Shaming is hardly new. Among the better known examples – albeit a fictional rendition – is the punishment undeservedly meted out to Hester Prynn for adultery in The Scarlet Letter. But public humiliation as punishment goes back a long way. Dr. Mathew Green, author of London, a Travel Guide Through Time notes a variety of shaming techniques in medieval London including shaming parades, scold’s bridles, cucking stools and pillories. Dr. Green reports use of the latter for a variety of specific crimes including “conjuring, fraud, blasphemy, perjury, slander, attempted sodomy, and spreading false news……” (bold italics mine!) . Shaming by pillory was hardly restricted to the dark ages or to the Old World. A public pillorying apparently occurred in Delaware in 1901. And in modern academic journals of law there is ongoing discussion of shaming as an appropriate form of punishment and deterrence.
Shaming certainly deserves consideration as punishment and deterrence for the perpetrators of denial but it would be ideal if, at the same time, we preserved for future generations the identities of the powerful and wealthy who still are obfuscating the science and dragging around red herrings – even now as record storms pummel our coasts, species disappear at a dizzying rate and the planet’s temperature marches upwards. Here is a modest proposal.
Visualize a Mount Rushmore-scale rock carving – done, of course on private, property and paid for by a crowd-funding campaign drawing from the millions of citizens dismayed by what the eminences grises behind climate denial have done. There, in gigantic scale, the visages of Donald Trump, Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry and Edward Koch would stare wide-eyed out at a fitting barren desert landscape – beads of sweat prominently carved on their brows, handkerchiefs mopping their foreheads as stylized flames lick up from the surrounding earth giving the setting a hellish ambiance. Carved into the rock beneath each towering diaphoretic bust would be a memorable quote. “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Donald Trump: November 2012. “I would not agree that it’s (CO2’s) a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Scott Pruitt: March 2014. “China and India are going to do what they’re going to do anyway. So we just hurt ourselves, even under their theory. And their theories aren’t working very well, because they keep predicting all these theories that aren’t happening..”Charles Koch: June 2016 . “…..this idea that science is just absolutely settled and if you don’t believe it’s settled then somehow you’re another Neanderthal, that is so inappropriate from my perspective.” Rick Perry: June, 2017. “The problem is that we don’t understand what the effects [of climate change] are. There are no models that exist…” Ryan Zinke June 2017
Such a monument will at least preserve the identities of some of the key perpetrators of terracide and who knows, the shame it communicates might even begin to have some deterrent effect as the steadily mounting evidence for major human-induced climate change becomes more and more undeniable.