The Case for Calling Climate Change “Genocide”

Alberta holds one of the
world’s most ravaged regions. In the north of the Canadian province, a vast
sprawl of industry the size of Florida has been erected to haul tar sands from
beneath the forests, desiccating the land in pursuit of profitable oil, which
in turn warms the planet and destroys its ecosystems. The Indigenous peoples who live among these gray wastes have a word to describe what has
long been happening to them. “If we don’t have land and we don’t have anywhere
to carry out our traditional lifestyle,” George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree
First Nation told a journalist in 2007, “we lose who we are as a people. So
if there’s no land, then it’s equivalent in our estimation to genocide of a
people.” Tony de Brum, the revered former leader of the Marshall Islands—a
low-lying Pacific atoll once abused as an American nuclear testing lab, where
homes are already being washed away by rising waters—also uses this provocative term. The “displacement of
populations and destruction of cultural language and tradition,” he said in
2015, “is equivalent in our minds to genocide.” 

and organizers have long warned that as the planet decays, genocides will
become more likely. Infrastructure collapse, resource scarcity, and authority
vacuums could, they hypothesize, throw entire peoples from the lands of their
birth, forced to battle each other to survive. Some governments will draw down
the portcullis or build up the border wall—islands of reaction.

climate change is not just an imminent threat—something about to happen,
hanging portentously like a guillotine blade over the horizon. In fact, it is
already here; we live amid its damages. And those threatened Indigenous nations
raise an important question: Is it possible that climate change is not just a
trigger of genocide but also a genocidal force in and of itself? Could this
incendiary form of international law really be used as tool against the biggest
polluters and destroyers of our homes?

When we
think about genocide today, we think of a particular kind of violence—a
singular event of incredible destruction carried out by a set of perpetrators
against a definable group, such as the Ottoman Empire’s mass deportation of
Armenians, Serbian camps for Bosnian Muslims, Hutu pogroms of Tutsi, and perhaps above all, the Nazi murder of millions of Jews. The techniques of obliteration can
be crude and fanatical or high-tech and methodical, but they share three
criteria: the targeting of particular and distinct victims—a tribal, ethnic, or
religious unit; the deliberate and calculated conspiracy to murder, provable in
common criminal court as if only one person had killed another; and, more
abstractly, a sense that such violence is unique and discrete, not a normal
thing to occur.

By this kind of strict legal
understanding, it would be a waste of breath and effort to haul the chiefs of Chevron,
Aramco, DuPont, Bayer, Nestlé, Tyson, or any of the largest
carbon emitters into the dock at the
International Criminal Court and charge them with genocide by climate change.
For starters, the multitude of ways our ecology has been altered does not create
a uniform method of murder. The planet’s crisis comes from more than just carbon
accumulation. Rather, in David Wallace-Wells’s evocative term, it is a “cascade”:
a rolling compound of ozone depletion, aerosol loading, freshwater exhaustion,
phosphorous- and nitrogen-cycle imbalances, general pollution, and so on. As
instruments of slaughter, infernos in California and New South Wales have
little in common with floods in Miami and Manila, or heatwaves in Karachi and
Kirkuk. And even when these forces are at their most devastating, one might
object, there is still no specific ethnic, religious, or tribal group suffering
on its own—it appears to afflict all nature and all people, albeit not
remotely equally.

Then there’s the issue of intent: Those
corporate captains and their political accessories are not strictly speaking conspiring,
a defense lawyer might argue, to produce a particular drought or outbreak of
disease through their emissions. Their assault on the planet isn’t so finely
honed. Each of them has been guilty of other crimes and might have even paid
meager penalties for polluting rivers, busting unions, tainting topsoil,
commissioning death squads, deforesting whole districts, stirring cancer in
local populations, or in earlier times, as with United Fruit or BP or Brown
Brothers, ordering the overthrow of governments. One could allege the grossest
kind of negligence where global warming is concerned. But is that the same
thing as genocide?

The 1948
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was the product
of messy, reluctant negotiations. Even after
the harrowing experience of the Second World War and the trials of Nazi
officials at Nuremberg, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States had to
be harried and badgered into accepting genocide as law. The resulting convention defined genocide as encompassing
not just the deliberate killing of members of a “national, ethnical, racial or
religious group,” but also actions like causing them “serious bodily or mental
harm” or imposing conditions “calculated to bring about its physical
destruction in whole or in part.” The Allied powers who reluctantly agreed to this
were themselves, by any measure, guilty of that very crime in their recent
pasts. Only through the efforts of Rafael Lemkin, a dogged Jewish prosecutor
from Poland who coined the term “genocide,” was the Convention established at
all. In his lobbying, Lemkin had to gut and neuter his original, more radical
proposal. Had his
theory taken hold, calling climate
change “genocide” might be much more widespread today.

Lemkin’s conception of genocide had three
phases. First, Barbarism, which is what we think of as genocide today: “a
coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential
foundations of the life of national groups.” Second, and importantly, came Vandalism:
the deliberate destruction of culture. In Lemkin’s mind, culture meant art, ritual,
literature, language, music, treasure houses of sacred texts. Every people on
the planet produced culture, and all of it was equally valuable. As he wrote
rather beautifully, “The contribution of any particular collectivity to world
culture as a whole forms the wealth of all of humanity.” Vandalism, therefore,
was an assault on “world culture.” An injury to one is an injury to all. Lastly
came Denial: “the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.”

High tide and ocean surge floods a cemetery in the low-lying Marshall Islands.


Lemkin understood that these phases
supported one another: The crime of genocide could not be committed without
each annihilatory act taking place. Just killing people was not genocide, but
rather an atrocity or a crime against humanity. What was necessary was the
destruction of bodies as well as culture and, ultimately, memory. Genocide was
more than a discrete occurrence in geographically restricted space. In Lemkin’s
terms, it endangered “the entire social order” and smashed “the very basis of
social harmony.”

Lemkin’s understanding of vandalism—the
destruction of culture as a formative aspect of genocide—is what the Indigenous
leaders describe when they talk about a lost way of life. When culture is
intimately connected to place, and natural environment forms a distinct,
immutable part of a people’s identity, then environmental destruction is also
cultural destruction.

course, many of us moved away from an intimate connection with the environment
long ago. We don’t therefore experience climate change as a form of genocide in
the same way. But in a brutal kind of irony,
those least responsible for the rising rate of emissions will be those who
shoulder the worst burden. Mainly, it will be the poorest: subsistence farmers
and fishermen, precarious wage laborers, slum dwellers, those who cannot grab
hold of the lifeboats built by the rich. What is unfolding could be, in a
sense, a series of individual “slow genocides” that, taken together, amount to a
collective extermination.

Genocide scholarship also offers a way to
argue that climate change meets the criteria for criminal intent. In his legal
analysis of the Ottoman Empire’s crimes during the First World War, the Australian-British
human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson pointed to an interpretation of
English common law used in the successful
prosecution of Rwandan genocidaire
Jean-Paul Akayesu. This interpretation argues that intent can be inferred from
action: The perpetrator, whether by acting or refusing to act, can be considered
responsible for a crime if they know what the outcome would be.

Any theory of climate change as a
genocidal force would then have to hinge on foreknowledge. What did the
frackers and dumpers and drillers and fellers know about the likely outcome of
their actions, and when did they know it? An easy date might be June 23, 1988,
when James Hansen, a scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration, gave his revelatory
testimony to the Senate Energy Committee
saying he and his colleagues were 99 percent sure global warming was being
caused by emissions. Or perhaps July 1977, when Exxon’s senior scientist warned
the company’s management committee about the deathly potential of its product. Other milestones might include the release of any of the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change’s six assessment reports.
Viewed this way, the emitters’ concerted, conspiratorial campaign of
disinformation and denial against the scientific consensus takes on a vastly
more sinister and sadistic edge.

Above all, Rafael Lemkin understood
genocide as a process, not an event. It had to acquire movement and momentum,
only stalling when there were no more bodies to take, no more artifacts to
destroy, no more habitats to defile. Our capacity to live, let alone to
flourish on this planet, is declining every day. In our time, genocide is no longer
a sporadic or lamentable phenomenon but a constant reality: a steady normal.

For two centuries, guilt has accumulated.
The conundrum now, as we enter the turbulence of true crisis, is where to place
it. Dragging the corporate titans who profited from driving the world to the
brink before a judge would only scrape the scummy surface. Complicity runs
considerably further—from middle managers and lobbyists to the halls of
Congress. The regular way of doing things in the industrialized parts of the globe
can no longer continue as valuable or even feasible.

Short of a revolutionary rewriting of the
1948 Genocide Convention on the terms Rafael Lemkin intended, calling climate
change “genocide” is little more than scholarly definition and a kind of polemical
accusation. Genocide, whether we like it or not, is still an existing legal
concept enshrined in statutes with penalties attached­—none of which, most
likely, could be applied to climate change.

But there remains something alluring about
using it all the same. It seems to suggest the possibility of redemption: that
those responsible—as with some of the perpetrators in Rwanda or the former
Yugoslavia—might have judgment cast upon them by the world’s highest court. Of
course, even that wouldn’t halt the current crisis, or rescue us from it. Moreover, it betrays a kind
of wishful thinking: the vague hope that someone “upstairs,” a higher authority, might come to the rescue. In reality, all we have is the obligation to marshal, to organize, to bring
the necessary pressure down on the heads of those who, by their own greed, threaten life as countless communities
know it.


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