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Climate Science And The Rule Of Law: Connecting The Dots

By Bill Henderson

18 February, 2012

Dr. James Hansen is part of a panel discussion at the AAAS meeting in Vancouver on Saturday. But PM Harper and Premier Clark needn't fear the logic of a humble scientist.

There is a telling James Hansen anecdote in the introduction to Randy Olson's informing DON'T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST: Talking substance in an age of style:

"On June 23 2008, James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, gave a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, in which he said: "CEO's of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of the long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature".

Now don't get me wrong - James Hansen is a superstar of the science world and deserving of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts in speaking out against the George W. Bush administration's tampering with science studies. But this book isn't about making people think that scientists are cool. If that's all you're looking for you should go elsewhere. It's about examining the truth, which, by the way, is what science is supposed to be about.

And the truth is that the idea of trying energy executives  for 'crimes against humanity' is laughable and insulting to the general public. This shows the extent that scientists and the public are not on the same wavelength. It's as simple as the words of the prison guard in Cool Hand Luke, spoken to the inmate Paul Newman: 'What we have here is....  failure to ko-mune-eee-kate'."

Olson was right in pointing out that Hansen lost credibility by saying something that is perceived to be laughable and insulting to the general public. His book is about communicating science in America.

But if you read what Hansen said, and you understand the climate change danger as Dr. Hansen does, then you have to know that Hansen was dead right, dead, chilling right; and, furthermore, calling attention to a crime against humanity was entirely appropriate.

The problem is that in America people don't treat climate change seriously -  as unimaginable catastrophe where the lives of the vast majority of people alive in the second half of our century are at risk. And in America CEO's of big fossil energy companies are as impervious to justice as kings and barons were in feudal times.

Olson telling of the story says far more about Olson and what he thinks substance is in our age of style than about truth and Hansen - in our era of post-truth politics where you can say anything on TV networks like Fox; where a presidential candidate like Newt Gingrich can say bulltweety like Obama is a radical socialist, but a scientist like Hansen can't tell the truth about oil company execs.

Mark Jaccard drew my attention to Olson's book in Carrie Saxifrage's report of one of his presentations and his upcoming book:

Charlie Smith digs deep into climate journalist William Marsden's book FOOLS RULE for similar social science insight to try and explain why Stephen Harper is probably incapable of recognizing the reality of climate change:

Is it possible that reason and responsibility have been so corroded in our society that we cannot and will never connect the dots between our use of fossil fuels and the building gravest crime ever against humanity?

I think that if we can understand and define this problem we can still work our way through it to needed action on climate change before it is too late. (Desmond Tutu: I'm not an optimist - I'm a prisoner of hope.)

Last week, before I'd read the Hansen anecdote in Olson's book, I e-mailed the law societies of Canada's three western provinces, their Federal umbrella-org and the Canadian Bar Association asking for information and help in laying charges against the PM, the western premiers and fossil fuel corporate execs:

I asked in my message for information and guidance concerning the possibility of legal action against the federal government and several provincial governments who have strategies and policies for expanding fossil fuel production - the expanding greenhouse gas emissions from this increasing production would lead to premature deaths in future generations and should be considered a crime against humanity at a crucial time when the scientific consensus is that rapid emission reduction is necessary.

If one is witness to a party harmed by the actions of a third party that refuses to understand and desist, in our society isn't resort to the rule of law appropriate?

There is no question of cause and effect; there is abundant evidence linking fossil fuel use with premature deaths at an increasing scale to emissions produced. Presently we benefit from the production and use of fossil fuels and the consequences fall on future generations who have no vote, say or power - doesn't this situation cry out for the rule of law and justice? Canada is trying to become a fossil fuel superpower - isn't this a crime against humanity and aren't all of us who do nothing guilty by our silence?

Canada's federal government and several provinces have strategies and policies in place to expand fossil fuel production and use. Is this not a criminal matter in that increasing fossil fuel use has as a consequence an increase in premature deaths. This is why I am messaging: is there a way to use the rule of law to protect innocents in the future from the consequences of government action to expand fossil fuel production today? What would be the optimum way of litigating protection for future generations?

I received no reply at all from any of the law societies so I sent a second message - Bcc'ed to some thirty journalists - with some prompting language:

"There was no reply at all from any of the law societies or the CBA and I think this silence speaks volumes about denial and even cowardice in those who could and should work within the rule of law to protect future generations of Canadians. 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.' "

I have since received the most polite and unpromising reply from LSBC.

We could and should be using the evidence-based rule of law to constrain those who would expand fossil fuel production today for their own short term self-interest. I know Ecojustice has tried to use Canada's courts in this way with little effect, but it is only a matter of time until there is more than enough information to connect the dots (Yes, there is now IMHO, but what do I know - I'm from Venus ).

So I hope many will go and see Dr. Hansen speaking not just as a scientist. And I hope activists in Europe, Australia, the US and elsewhere will consider  trying to use the courts to constrain the expansion of fossil fuel production and use. The general public might consider this laughable and insulting but the rule of law might just be our best chance at stopping this crime against humanity.

Bill Henderson is a frequent contributor to Countercurrents on climate change. He can be reached at
bill (at) pacificfringe.net



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