Crimes against humanity: Stephen Harper and the ethics of climate change

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After publishing a piece on the ethics of climate change in August I received a considerable amount of feedback about a statement I made regarding Stephen Harper. I implied that our Prime Minister might be tried for crimes against humanity as a result of his climate change policies.

Several people who responded (especially those within my immediate family) are concerned that this statement might harm my employment prospects as I head back out into the workforce this January.

I strive to think and act and speak in accordance with reason and logic and would hope that the opinion piece in which this controversial statement exists is a good reflection of this character. However, I must apologize for one significant error. I suggested that Harper may be tried for crimes against humanity. Instead, I should say that Harper ought to be tried for crimes against humanity.

"May" is descriptive, passive phrasing, while "ought to" is prescriptive or, in philosophical jargon: normative. Precedent suggests that it is quite unlikely that any western leader will ever be tried for the destruction they cause, which makes the word "may" slightly inaccurate. Saying that Harper "ought to" be tried for crimes against humanity is much more appropriate and for this omission I apologize.

Still, to suggest that Harper ought to be tried for crimes against humanity is a substantial charge to lob against a Prime Minister so we should explore the case further and demonstrate that it is based on empirical evidence and consistent with our notions of justice.

Since the case should address crimes against humanity we will ignore the financial consequences of climate change and the impact of climate change on other species and focus instead on human casualties.

Two separate organizations, both closely linked to the United Nations, have released reports with similar results. In 2009, the Global Humanitarian Forum estimated that at least 300,000 people die a year as a result of climate change and in 2012 DARA International released a report estimating 400,000 human deaths per year.

If this number remains constant then climate change would kill around four million people each decade.

Unfortunately, as greenhouse gas emissions accumulate in our atmosphere, and climate change advances, the annual rate of casualties will probably increase as time goes by.

Predicting the human impact of climate change in the future and translating this into a specific number of casualties is impossible but it is important to consider the most dangerous risks we are exposed to. These are a collection of some of the most dire warnings from relevant, respectable sources.

Many within the scientific community have warned of the threat of societal collapse as a result of climate change. For example, in 2008 130 Canadian climate science leaders signed a letter that began, "Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war."

One of Canada's most celebrated wildlife biologists, Neil Dawe, recently announced very publicly that he would not be surprised if the generation after him experienced the extinction of humanity.

Security experts across the planet are very concerned about climate change as well. A CIA commissioned report refers to climate change as a threat multiplier and other security agencies from Australian Defense Force to the European Council are studying this problem closely.

The potential totality of climate change is frightening and distinguishes this problem from any other threat our species has ever encountered. If a climate change induced collapse of civilization were to reduce our population from seven billion to one billion this would entail 100 times more casualties than our species had endured during World War II. The process of collapse would involve unprecedented amounts of human suffering.

Our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, should be tried for the central role he has played in advancing climate change. Since Harper became Prime Minister, Canada has been awarded the most obstructive nation at annual climate change conferences for six consecutive years by the Climate Action Network. This makes Harper one of the most destructive climate criminals on the planet.

Over the next century, climate change could dwarf World War II if we compare the two in terms of the total human casualties they will cause. However, the intentions of Stephen Harper are quite different from Adolph Hitler.

Harper's modus operandi is to expand Canada's resource economy by any means necessary. In this sense, climate change and the associated casualties are a side effect of Harper's mission to sell off the tar sands as quickly as possible. In Canadian law, this difference in intentions would be enough to lower Harper's charges from first degree murder to second degree murder.

Harper could be likened to a criminally negligent parent or a drunk driver.

Perhaps the most appropriate analogy is to compare Harper to a parent who has locked his children in a car on the hottest day of the summer. A significant note in this analogy is that Harper has scientists and citizens desperately trying to tell him that his actions are potentially deadly but instead of heeding these warnings he is cutting the scientists' funding and muzzling them and dismissing the citizens as radicals.

It should be clear now that there is a substantive case against Stephen Harper and that a trial for crimes against humanity would not be frivolous.

The idea that my statements could make me seem irrational, radical or mentally instable to potential employers is disturbing. Instead of climate change advocacy, silence should be considered a symptom of a serious mental disorder which entails myopic greed, disastrous ignorance, crippling fear, apathy or some combination of all of the above.

Employers should value climate change activists for our tenacity, energy and intelligence. We are attempting to solve the most complicated and urgent problem humans have ever faced.


Dante Ryel has an Honours BA in Philosophy and Mathematics from York University and is currently studying Energy Systems Engineering at Mohawk College.  He is a co-chair of the System Change not Climate Change group in the Hamilton Chapter of the Council of Canadians and sits on the committee of Hamilton 350.


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