The President of the United States is a criminal. I’m not referring to the twenty-odd investigations of him currently underway for violations of the Constitution, obstruction of justice, and collaboration with the Russian election attack, among other misdeeds. No, I’m referring to his and his administration’s intentional and reckless pursuit of national policies that condemn American and the world’s citizens to environmental destruction and the end of life as we know it.
Specifically, I suggest that Trump should be charged with crimes against humanity. Ordinarily, these are violent crimes on a large scale, such as torture, enslavement, forced deportation, murder, and ethnic cleansing. But policies that not merely ignore but increase the threat of climate change might be read—and I believe should be read—as creating conditions for mass removal of populations, unprecedented destruction of species and natural resources, mass starvation, and other kinds of suffering on a previously unknown scale. The International Criminal Court statute in fact specifies “Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” No wonder the US is not a party to the court.
Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth: A Recent History points out that we have known about the causes and consequences of climate change, and the remedies for it, for over fifty years. Yet time and again politics and corporate interference have trumped science: Scores of reports, many hours of testimony before Congress, and numerous international meetings have resulted in minimal steps that were known in advance to be inadequate. All administrations share in this indictment, but only one—Trump’s—has very deliberately sought to sabotage its own and the world’s scientific community in order to satisfy the climate denying ideologues and their corporate partners.
In Trump’s world, facts are the enemy of truth. This man, who once said he had “a natural instinct for science,” holds to only one truth: money talks. “What I’m not willing to do is sacrifice the economic well-being of our country for something that nobody really knows.”
“Nobody knows”? Sure, when you drastically limit the role of scientific inquiry in climate change. Not only was the office of the science advisor eliminated; media access to the tens of thousands of scientists working for the government was severely restricted, as was their ability to present their research at scientific meetings. Playing politics with science has a long history, during which specialists on climate change have come and gone in Washington. Even in the best of times their reports have never created the sense of urgency necessary for a national effort to prevent worst cases. Under Trump science itself has a bad name, and any government report suggesting a crisis is sure to be buried.
Nobody knows? Trump is trying his best to by giving the fossil fuel industry, and climate-change deniers, new life by appointing first Scott Pruitt and then Andrew Wheeler to head the EPA, and Ron Zinke and then David Bernhardt to lead the interior department. They and their pro-industry staffs, riddled with conflicts of interest, are the gateway to oil, gas, and coal industries’ lobbyists, lawyers, and financial backers (such as the Koch brothers’ foundation), all of whom seek to soften or roll back Obama-era environmental regulations and carve up public lands to suit energy interests. Together, the two agencies have been doing as their sponsors wish—opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and national monuments to oil drilling and mining, loosening restrictions on methane emissions, promoting a dying coal industry at the expense of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, weakening safety regulations for offshore drilling, reducing protections for wetlands, wiping out endangered species, and rolling back auto fuel efficiency rules.
While Trump fiddles, the world burns. Some recent disturbing findings:
- The Amazon rainforest, the world’s largest carbon sink, is on the verge of catastrophic deforestation now that Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, is in charge. What was once thought to be a victory over the forest destroyers has turned into a nightmare. Protective mechanisms for both trees and indigenous people are being removed and, as with Trump, documentation of the startling pace of deforestation by Brazil’s own government agencies is being dismissedby Bolsonaro as “lies.”
- Within the Arctic Circle, ice is melting at a terrifying rate, starting with 60 percent of Greenland’sice sheet. It poured 197 billion tons into the Atlantic in just one month (July), enough to raise sea levels 0.02 inches. The ice is literally melting before one’s eyes. But for this administration, the Arctic can’t melt fast enough. Want to know you know why Trump wants to buy Greenland? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has provided the answer. Speaking at an international meeting in Finland, he said: “The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance.” Citing the oil and mineral resources it holds, Pompeo said: “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade. This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as twenty days.”
- A UN report on biodiversity, Bill McKibben writes, “serves as a kind of pre-obituary for all of the creatures now on the way out—the current global rate of extinction is estimated as ‘already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years.’”
- Food production patterns are going to have to change dramatically if there is any chance to halt global warming. A draft studyby the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reminds us that reducing carbon emissions in our daily lives is less than half the solution. The rest must come from reversing deforestation, soil erosion, cattle grazing, and meat consumption, among other practices.
With every passing day it seems less likely than ever that global temperatures can be kept below the 2-degree C. threshold. Already, several areas of the US have reached or exceeded the threshold. Yes, here and there is good news: the resurgence of the Greens in Germany, local-level activism (especially in California and the Pacific Northwest) on energy conservation, and successful lawsuits against the Trump administration’s environmental protection rollbacks by NGOs such as the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But I fear that these sporadic displays of common sense and grit are not enough. By the time large numbers of citizens are aroused to protest, coastal cities will be on the verge of inundation, the polar ice cap will have melted, and populations of dispossessed people will be too busy fleeing to march. In his book, Nathaniel Rich concludes that Trump & Co. are guilty of crimes against humanity—and Rich is not alone. Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Development, has said the same, pointing out the many ways in which Trump and other climate crisis deniers have failed to protect the public though fully apprised of the facts of climate change. Their crimes should not go unpunished.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.