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Commentary & Opinion

Criminal Responsibility For Global Warming

Trying to light a fire under the public and our public officials, I’ve advocated declaring war on global warming, sought the clergy’s moral leadership, pressed the urgency of protecting a livable environment for the poor and minorities as well as the wealthy, and described the earth’s reaction to our failure to protect it.

But I found myself in tears during the Jewish High Holy Day services. Repeatedly we’re told that God bids us to be good to each other but I look around and see mass suicide and murder. Whether we’re religious or not, what do we want on our conscience?

Unfortunately, too many dawdle while politics squelches action despite the growing damage. Many turn away from climate change because they think it’s beyond what they can do – though effective action is as near as our polling places. All of us, our children and grandchildren would benefit if more Americans took responsibility. Ultimately this is a moral cause: to stop the rape of the earth that gives us life; and to stop the inevitable slaughter if we don’t protect our and each other’s earthly home.

Under New York Penal Law, a person who “recklessly causes the death of another person” is guilty of a form of manslaughter. Under federal law, “killing of a human being … without due caution” is involuntary manslaughter. We could argue forever about the meaning of those terms except that scientists have been warning us for decades and we now have clear evidence that global temperatures are rising, and accelerating forest fires, drought, sea rise, severe storms and temperatures so high that people are already being killed. It has become clear that the predictions of the scientists are conservative – global warming is happening faster than they expected and with increasingly severe consequences. So when does it become reckless not to act – to write, to speak, to vote or to organize? When does it become lack of due caution to let the damage, destruction and death continue?

Do we have the moral, religious or legal freedom to turn aside while it is still possible to stop further global warming, and prevent killing much of the earth’s population? When we know the consequence, as we do, are we being appropriately cautious about the harm to others unless we do what we can to prevent rising temperatures from drowning, starving and incinerating millions? When does it become reckless?

Is it reckless not to insist that our governments engineer the transition of our economy from products and practices that belch greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide and methane, to more healthful and efficient products and practices? Is it reckless to mismanage the fields and forests that could absorb some of the greenhouse gasses? Shall we engrave on our tombstones, “Here lie people who contributed to global warming even though they knew the consequences”?

Many won’t bother with tombstones, but will that hide us from our descendants’ memories, so long as they survive, or from the eyes of the Lord? Again, I try to put this in ecumenical ways, but I think fire and brimstone are absolutely appropriate. We have to act.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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