Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Snowy owl in flight.

Flying canadian snowy owl. Quebec. Canada. North America. (Photo: Alberto Ghizzi Panizza/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Killing Nature Must Be Treated as a Crime on a Par with Genocide and War Crimes

The time has come for drastic measures to protect the environment and save the world from a climate catastrophe.

C.J. Polychroniou

The first United Nations Scientific Conference on the Environment, also known as the First Earth Summit, was held in Stockholm, Sweden, from June 6-15, 1972. Ιt established a Declaration of Principles and adopted an action plan with recommendations for the preservation and enhancement of the environment. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, it led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Since then, environmental issues and climate evolution have figured prominently on the global agenda, yet pledges made to protect the environment and reduce emissions are not being fulfilled. Without an international enforcement mechanism, governments are not legally bound to make good on their commitments, for example, to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2040, which is what Biden pledged that the US will do.

Ecocide must be elevated into an international crime—on a par with genocide and war crimes—and fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Equally significant, environmental legislation aimed at imposing criminal penalties on corporations and their officials remains weak and, in some countries, even non-existent. In the US, where several types of criminal violations are specified in the Clean Air Act and whose definition of an air pollutant includes greenhouse gas emissions, following a 2007 US Supreme Court ruling on the matter, many states regularly look the other way when it comes to protecting public health and the environment from illegal air pollution from oil refineries and chemical plants. Texas, for example, failed between 2011 and 2016 to penalize 97 percent of illegal polluters.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top two US greenhouse gas emitting companies listed in the new edition of Greenhouse 100 Polluters Index Report by researchers at the renowned Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst are based in Texas. Vista Energy and Duke Energy released a combined 194 million tons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere in 2019, and this figure does not include biogenic carbon dioxide emissions (emissions released by a stationary facility from the combustion or decomposition of biologically-based materials other than fossil fuels).
 
Under the Trump administration, polluters and corporate interests had more freedom than any other time over the past few decades to destroy the environment. More than 125 environmental regulations were rolled back during Trump’s nightmarish reign of power. 

Of course, let’s not forget the US military’s carbon footprint, which spews so much greenhouse gas emissions from fuel usage alone that if it were a country it would rank as the 47th worst polluter in the world, according to a 2019 report released by social scientists at Durham University and Lancaster University in UK.

In the meantime, China has emerged as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, with 60 percent of its power provided by coal, although it is still far behind the US in terms of per capita emissions.

Thus, nearly half a century after the First Earth Summit, most environmental problems have worsened, and nature and climate are subsequently on the verge of breakdown. The rate of species extinction is accelerating, according to scores of scientific studies, and there continues to be a relentless rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil which causes temperatures to rise, producing the phenomenon of global warming.

Essentially, what we have is a cause-and-effect relationship between anthropogenic climate change and species extinction. Higher temperatures lead to a chain reaction of other changes around the globe, with tremendous impact not simply on people but also on wildlife and biodiversity.  Today’s extinctions proceed at a pace faster than ever before, with around one million species already facing extinction, “many within decades,’ according to a major United Nations 2019 report.

The time has come for drastic measures to protect the environment and save the world from a climate catastrophe. Polluting the environment is a crime, but environmental criminals are almost never prosecuted. Environmental crime is still regarded a “white collar crime,” subject mostly to civil charges and accompanied by fines, when the reality on the state of the planet mandates that environmental destruction be conceptualized as a crime against humanity.  

Fines are surely not enough to deter greedy and ruthless capitalists from destroying the environment, even if fines happen to be as steep as those involved in the historic greenhouse gas enforcement case between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Hyundai and Kia that forced the automakers to pay $100 million civil penalty for, among other wrongdoings, emitting more greenhouse gases than reported to EPA or, even more recently, of the seemingly humongous fine of $1 billion levied against German automakers Volkswagen and BMW by the European Union. Both automakers were fined for colluding to curb the use of emissions cleaning technology.

For the record, Volkswagen has a long cheating emissions history, yet it continues to get off easy. The reason is that Germany doesn’t even have criminal liability for corporations, and only recently has there been a move to introduce such a legal framework. In Europe, in fact, “there is no penalty for environmental crime,” according to EU environmental commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius.

Yet another reason why fines won’t deter polluters is because the costs of such penalties get passed onto shareholders and even to consumers rather than being borne by the culpable individuals.

Prison sentences must be embraced for environmental crimes, although it is clear that environmental crime cannot be synthesized into a single category. Severe environmental crimes (any crime that brings about an alteration of globalcommons  or the Earth’s ecological system, such as, for example, the destruction of the Amazon forest under the Bolsonaro administration) should be accompanied by severe imprisonment sentences.

The harmful effects of environmental degradation—impact on human health, loss of biodiversity, atmospheric changes, scarcity of natural resources---are beyond dispute. Therefore, the killing of nature must be added to the list of the most horrific crimes imaginable. Ecocide must be elevated into an international crime—on a par with genocide and war crimes—and fall within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
 
If we want to save the Earth, there is no way around it.

As for those who may object to severe imprisonment sentences as an effective answer to severe environmental crimes, there is considerable evidence from available studies looking into whether the criminal prosecution of war criminals can prevent and deter crimes against humanity indicating that everything depends on the credibility of the institutions involved and that the conditions have to be just right.

Still, even if doubts persist about the deterrent effects of harsh imprisonment for systemic environmental damage, one thing is certain: leaving intact the existing legal response to environmental crime will ensure that the planet is doomed.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
C.J. Polychroniou

C.J. Polychroniou

C.J. Polychroniou  is a political economist/political scientist who has taught and worked in numerous universities and research centers in Europe and the United States. His latest books are The PrecipiceNeoliberalism, the Pandemic and the Urgent Need for Social Change (A collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky; Haymarket Books, 2021), and Economics and the LeftInterviews with Progressive Economists (Verso, 2021).

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

One Year In, Biden Fails to Boost C- Grade on Environment

The Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund assessment indicates the administration's action to deliver on environmental promises "desperately needs improvement."

Jessica Corbett ·


'A No-Brainer': Lawmakers Urge Pelosi to Hold Vote on Stock Trading Ban

"Perhaps this means some of our colleagues will miss out on lucrative investment opportunities," said House members in a bipartisan letter. "We don't care."

Jessica Corbett ·


Virginia Schools Sue Youngkin Mandate Making Masks Optional

The Republican governor wants to allow parents to decide whether their children should wear masks to school to mitigate Covid-19 transmission—guidance at least 58 school districts have no plans to follow.

Julia Conley ·


US Puts Troops on Standby as War Tensions Over Ukraine Mount

The U.K. threatens "lightning war" as military forces mobilize in eastern Europe.

Andrea Germanos ·


Advocacy Group Urges Pfizer to Combat Paxlovid Inequality

"Help end the pandemic this year around the world," one advocate told Pfizer. "Not just in a handful of rich countries."

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo