As a criminologist, I cannot help but acknowledge the depths of the harms that have and will continue to emerge from human caused climate change: the environmental destruction and loss of biodiversity, the risks to human health from extreme temperatures, the costs bore by the most vulnerable and poorest people. Yet we seem to be at a crossroads. Even with the overwhelming scientific consensus, significant environmental movement mobilization, and the defund fossil fuels movement, there are interested individuals and organisations that are operating to obstruct international action on climate change. We can refer to these groups as climate obstruction agents, where their operations and actions result in 1) no action on climate change, or 2) limited action on climate change, that thus ultimately have ecologically harmful consequences.
Most environmental harms are committed by, or are the result of actions taken by the most powerful in society, but these may not be defined as criminal under law (Lynch et al., 2013). Human caused climate change is one of these. Scientists emphasise the ecological harm associated with the unsustainable production and consumption of natural resources; particularly fossil fuels largely in the western world that have caused climate change. This is the result of the economic infrastructure – i.e. fossil fuel global capitalism – that requires the continuous extraction of natural resources as a means to pursue profit. This pursuit is accompanied by a political and social divide between the most powerful in society and the wider population. In fact, most of the world’s population will not obtain the fruits of this extraction which are instead concentrated in the hands of the few.
Those with this economic power, or the “elite,” are also those that construct legal frameworks defining behaviour or activities as environmentally criminal or harmful. Because these people are in positions of power based on these material conditions, they can negate the criticisms of the ecologically harmful unsustainable production, particularly counter-acting any ‘criminal or deviant charges’ because of their positions of power within the criminal justice system. In the USA, there are notable actors that have prevented our world’s shift to protect the environment, from the influence of the Koch Brothers (Greenpeace, 2011), or Exxon Mobil who purposefully misled the public on the knowledge on climate change (Suppran and Oreskes, 2020), to think tanks and advocacy groups such as the Heartland Institute and the Cato Institute who produce research, policy reports, and campaigns championing obstruction arguments to delay climate action.
I conceptualise these obstruction actions as criminally negligent. Criminal negligence can best be understood as the purposeful conduct in which a person ignores a known or obvious risk, or disregards the life and safety of others. Human caused climate change is a risk: its consequences will lead to ecological devastation and human suffering. From this perspective, the recklessness of the employment of obstruction undoubtedly is a choice, a purposeful decision taken by these actors to protect their own interests.
To justify the recklessness and determine innocence, the denial and obstruction movement use what I have elsewhere (2019) articulated as climate change techniques of neutralization. In its traditional form, techniques of neutralization (Sykes and Matza, 1957) was a theory used to explain the justifications used by juvenile delinquents to justify their deviant and criminal behaviour. I have applied this to Climate Change Counter Movement (CCCM) obstruction organisations, documenting how actors within the climate obstruction movement mobilise arguments that justify delaying climate action (2018). In the table you can observe the five different climate change techniques of neutralization. In some cases, actors will outright deny the scientific evidence of climate change thus ‘denying’ that there are any victims. Others will argue that it is natural climate change, thus denying the responsibility for climate change. Some even attack climate scientists, pro-environmental politicians, and environmental movements, condemning and criticising them.
Climate Change Counter Movement Techniques of Neutralization (McKie, 2019)
|Name||Original Technique||Climate Change Counter Movement Neutralisation Techniques|
|Denial of Responsibility||Denial of Responsibility is used to contend that the deviant or criminal act is accidental and/or fell victim to their social environment unable to control their actions||Climate change is happening, but humans are not the cause.|
|Denial of Injury||Denial of Injury or Harm asserts (1) an act will not injure or significantly injure someone or something; and/or (2) there are likely positive impacts from this behaviour||(1) There is no significant harm caused by human action and (2) there may even been some benefits|
|Denial of Victim||Denial of Victim on the one hand juxtaposes victim and offender as the deviant becomes the condemner and law enforcer||(1) There are no climate change nor climate change victims. (2) If climate change victims do exist, they deserve to be victimised.|
|Condemnation of the Condemner||Condemnation of the Condemner shifts negative or criticisms of a deviant those condemning that person’s actions, thereby rejecting the higher status of the condemners.||Climate change research is misrepresented by scientists, and manipulated by media, politicians and environmentalists.|
|Appeal to Higher Loyalties||Appeal to Higher Loyalties imitates a sacrifice to satisfy the requirements of an intimate social group||Economic progress and development are more important than preventing climate change.|
In 2016, we saw the rise of Donald Trump, an explicit climate denier who held the highest position in office, and the ‘leader of the free world’ (in a mythical sense). His own and his administration’s actions – symptomatic of the Republican Party – saw the USA withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. Donald Trump even used these techniques of neutralization in tweets and speeches. He uses the conspiratorial position on China and climate change as a form of Appealing to Higher Loyalties, arguing:
“ the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make USA manufacturing non-competitive” (@realdonaldtrump, Nov 6, 2012)
He uses condemnation of the condemner, referring to Greta Thunberg in a tweet as:
“So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill” (@realdonaldtrump, Dec 12, 2019).”
To have success in minimizing or stalling action on climate change by obstruction actors, it is based on the compliance of the public and policy makers to in part accept these delays or be in a position unable to act. In the USA, the distinct political and cultural extremities that exist within the country means it has essentially become near impossible to pursue significant action on climate change. This means we sit on the cusp of complete human and ecological destruction, yet the elite hope to protect their interests historically based on the destruction of the environment without any consequences.
In short, climate change is the biggest existential crisis the world faces, affecting every corner of the planet. No one will escape its implications, and the effects will most dominantly be harming those who are the poorest and marginalised within global society. Even with facts and data, there are still purposeful actions taken by delaying and obstruction individuals and organisations, who in the pursuit of their own social and economic interests have systematically risked the lives of billions of people by failing to comprehend and stall action on climate change. Their recklessness, coupled with the knowledge that ‘they know’ the impacts of climate change must be addressed, surely means in the future, as the world deals with the consequences of its past, those most responsible will be held to account.
Dunlap RE. and Brulle, RJ (2020). “Sources and Amplifiers of Climate Change Denial.” in D. C. Holmes & L. M. Richardson, L. M. (Eds.) Research Handbook on Communicating Climate Change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar: 49-61
Greenpeace, (2011). Koch Industries: Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine. Available at:
Lynch, M.J., Long, M.A., Barrett, K.L. & Stretesky, P.B. (2013) Is it a Crime to Produce Ecological Disorganisation? Why Green Criminology and Political Economy Matter in the Analysis of Global Ecological Harms. British Journal of Criminology, 53(6): 997-1016.
McKie R.E. (2021) The Climate Change Counter Movement: An International Deviant Network, The International Handbook on Anti-Environmentalism, eds. Tindall, D and Dunlap, R.E. Elger Edward Publishing
McKie, R.E. (2019) Climate Change Counter Movement Neutralisation Techniques: A Typology to Examine Climate Change Counter Movement Messaging, Sociological Inquiry, https://doi.org/10.1111/soin.12246
McKie R.E. (2018) Rebranding the Climate Change Counter Movement through a Criminological and Political Economy Lens Thesis submitted to Northumbria University, Newcastle. UK. Available at: http://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/33466/1/Ruth%20E%20McKie%20Ethesis%20Volumes%20Combined.pdf
Suppran, G and Oreskes N (2017) Assessing ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communication. Environmental Research Letters, 12(8)