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The Climate Emergency Isn't Just a Crisis, It's a Crime

Whether you see a blood red sky in San Francisco, a wind ravaged landscape in Iowa, or a flooded street in Pensacola, you know what you're looking at: a world unraveling at the seams and—in a very real sense—a crime scene.

A law enforcement officer watches flames launch into the air as fire continues to spread at the Bear fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

A law enforcement officer watches flames launch into the air as fire continues to spread at the Bear fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

I’ve been watching a documentary on Netflix about the history of the mafia in New York. Somewhere in the first episode, a veteran of the FBI explains how the mob bosses always avoided being caught. The key, he explained, was that they let the wise guys on the streets do the dirty work. That way all the murders, hijackings, and robberies couldn’t be traced back to the top. Even when the FBI had the evidence all laid out in front of them, it was hard to connect the dots. The violence in the streets was seen as murder, mayhem, and disorder, but never what it really was: a conspiracy that could be traced back to just a handful of bosses. 

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a different sort of mayhem sweep across the nation. Wildfires, windstorms, hurricanes, and floods have resulted in dozens of lives lost and billions of dollars in damage. As the writer Mary Heglar put it, you no longer need to read a scientific study to understand global warming, you just need to look outside your window. Whether you see a blood red sky in San Francisco, a wind ravaged landscape in Iowa, or a flooded street in Pensacola, you know what you’re looking at: a world unraveling at the seams. 

"No doubt voting this November is essential, but if we’re going to truly come to grips with this crisis we need to point a finger at who’s really responsible: the climate mafia, aka, the fossil fuel industry. "Even the press has begun to finally make the connection between these extreme weather events and global warming. After years of activists hammering on them to “end the climate silence,” the media has begun to explain how global warming is fueling wildfires, hurricanes, and other not-so-natural disasters. Newspapers have even put in on the front page. The TV networks are still lagging behind in their coverage— according to an analysis by Media Matters for America, out of 46 segments over Labor Day weekend on the wildfires out west, ABC, NBC, and CBS only mentioned global warming 7 times—but even that is a dramatic increase over years passed, when the networks could go months without a single mention of climate change. 

But there’s still something missing from all this discussion of the climate crisis: the conspiracy that’s behind it. 

Listen to the coverage on CNN or NPR and you could come away thinking that global warming was an unavoidable tragedy, a nasty side effect of an affluent civilization. Go on Twitter and you’ll see politicians proclaiming that “global warming is real” and that what we really need to do now is “vote.” No doubt voting this November is essential, but if we’re going to truly come to grips with this crisis we need to point a finger at who’s really responsible: the climate mafia, aka, the fossil fuel industry. 

Just like the mob, the fossil fuel industry is able to operate because it maintains distance from the damage it does. Sure, every now and then a disaster like the BP Oil Spill will thrust a company into the spotlight, but for the most part, the industry keeps its fingerprints away from the crime scene. For decades, the industry flat out lied about the connection between burning fossil fuels and global warming, dismissing climate change as a hoax. Then, as extreme weather events became ever more frequent, the industry tried to write them off as natural variations. If that didn’t work, it repeated the line “no single weather event can be attributed to global warming” like an incantation designed to ward off evil spirits—in this case, meaningful climate legislation. 

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Over the last decade, however, like FBI detectives working a homicide, scientists have been able to start directly attributing the impacts of global warming directly to the fossil fuel companies themselves. While the underlying science is complex, the basic idea of it is straightforward: since 71% of global emissions can be traced back to just 100 different fossil fuel corporations, you can start to connect individual climate disasters with the companies themselves. 

And thankfully, that’s exactly what’s beginning to happen. If there was a bright spot on the climate front over the past couple weeks, it was the news that Connecticut and Delaware are now joining a growing number of cities and states that are suing the fossil fuel industry for climate damages. 

"As long as the media and our politicians treat climate change as a just crisis, and not a crime, the real criminals won’t be held accountable."

On Monday, Vice President Biden lent his support to the cause saying, “Just last week, the Delaware state attorney general sued 31 big fossil fuel companies alleging that they knowingly wrecked havoc and damage on climate, our climate. Damage that is plain for everyone to see but the President.” Biden’s running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, began an investigation into ExxonMobil’s history of climate deception when she was California Attorney General, although she didn’t go so far as suing them, as she claimed at a CNN town hall. Climate advocates will be quick to forgive her exaggeration if a potential Biden-Harris administration decides to use the full power of the Department of Justice to go after fossil fuel companies. 

As pressure grows on the industry, it has switched gears yet again, attempting to portray itself as part of the climate solution. It’s like the mob admitting that, sure, maybe they do run the garbage collection, but they promise they’ll dial back on the murders by 2050 as long as you let them keep picking up the trash (except in that case, the mob actually did pick up the trash—the fossil fuel industry isn’t even cleaning up after its mess). Exxon, BP, Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute, and other industry front groups are all over social media right now pumping out the message that they can be trusted, they’re your friends, there’s no need to hold them accountable for the damage you can see with your very own eyes. 

The scary thing is: they might just get away with it. As long as the media and our politicians treat climate change as a just crisis, and not a crime, the real criminals won’t be held accountable. As long as we accept the narrative fed to us by the fossil fuel industry that we’re all equally responsible for the mess we are in, we won’t call out the companies that spent billions to prevent a clean energy economy from taking shape. 

Climate activists are having success getting the media to connect the dots between extreme weather events and global warming. Now we need to draw the line a step further to the companies behind the crisis, the fossil fuel mafia that’s profiting while the world burns. 

Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn is the director of Fossil Free Media and a co-founder of 350.org. Follow him on twitter: @jamieclimate 

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