Is climate change disinformation a crime against humanity? That question is posed in today's Guardian. It's not as unreasonable as it may at first sound.
If you're in a crowded, dark theatre and suddenly yell "fire" causing a stampede for the exits in which people are trampled to death, you're criminally responsible for killing them. The stampede and the deaths are the reasonably foreseeable consequences of your act. You don't have to actually intend to kill those people but it was foreseeable that it could well happen. You are deemed to intend the logical and foreseeable consequences of your act.
So what of those who deliberately sow falsehoods about global warming? We know global warming is going to kill people, it already is. We know if it's not effectively dealt with it could cause scores of millions to die. That is reasonably foreseeable.
Donald Brown, an associate professor in environmental ethics, science and law at Penn State University argues that climate change disinformation deserves to be punished:
Although there is an important role for scepticism in science, for almost 30 years some corporations have supported a disinformation campaign about climate change science.
While it may be reasonable to be somewhat sceptical about climate change models, these untruths are not based upon reasonable scepticism but outright falsification and distortions of climate change science.
These claims have included assertions that the science of climate change has been completely "debunked" and that there is no evidence of human causation of recent observed warming. There are numerous lines of evidence that point to human causation even if it is not a completely settled matter. Reasonable scepticism cannot claim that there is no evidence of causation and some other claims frequently being made by the well-financed climate change disinformation campaign, and they amount to an utter distortion of a body of evidence that the world needs to understand to protect itself from huge potential harms.
Threats from climate change include deaths and danger from droughts, floods, heat, storm-related damages, rising oceans, heat impacts on agriculture, loss of animals that are dependent upon for substance purposes, social disputes caused by diminishing resources, sickness from a variety of diseases, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, the inability to use property that people depend upon to conduct their life including houses or sleds in cold places, the destruction of water supplies, and the inability to live where has lived to sustain life. The very existence of some small island nations is threatened by climate change.
As long as there is any chance that climate change could create this type of destruction, even assuming, for the sake of argument, that these dangers are not yet fully proven, disinformation about the state of climate change science is extraordinarily morally reprehensible if it leads to non-action in reducing climate change's threat. In fact, how to deal with uncertainty in climate change science is an ethical issue, not only a scientific matter, because the consequences of delay could be so severe and the poorest people in the world as some of the most vulnerable.
Brown's argument is focused on those who deliberately or recklessly spread climate change disinformation. That is distinct from those who are merely skeptics and have some genuine basis for challenging the scientific consensus.
This is a difficult question to answer but I'll bet in 20-years the answer will be at our fingertips.