Could Big Oil Be Accused of Manslaughter Over Heat Waves?
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Could Big Oil Be Accused of Manslaughter Over Heat Waves?

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Fossil fuel companies could reasonably be charged with homicide for deaths caused by a 2023 heat wave in Arizona, a group of lawyers argues in a public memo.

In Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln’s head has melted from his wax statue at an elementary school due to the current heat wave, which has reached record temperatures.

We’ve reached the point where politicians are telling Americans not to stay home if they don’t have air conditioning, calling the heat “the deadliest weather we have.”

In southern Arizona, heat waves were extremely deadly in 2023, killing 645 people in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. The state capital also saw 31 consecutive days of temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, making July the hottest month on record for a U.S. city.

This year, things have gotten worse. Last month was the hottest June on record in Phoenix, and as of June 29, the Maricopa County Medical Examiner estimated the number of heat-related deaths at 175. That’s an 84 percent increase from the same time last year.

Now, a group of lawyers is warning that prosecutors could reasonably bring manslaughter charges against fossil fuel companies over these heat-related deaths. “The case for prosecuting fossil fuel companies for climate-related deaths is strong enough to warrant investigations by state and local prosecutors,” they write in a prosecution memorandum.

Climate-related deaths deserve the same justice as “street homicides”

Fossil Fuel DeathsCould Big Oil Be Accused of Manslaughter Over Heat Waves?
Courtesy of Matt Hrkac/Wikimedia Commons

Published by the consumer advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen, the document suggests that the state of Arizona could pursue involuntary manslaughter or second-degree murder charges for the hundreds of deaths that would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.

“As Americans were hit by another deadly heatwave last week, it’s important to remember that these climate disasters didn’t just happen,” Aaron Regunberg, a senior policy adviser in Public Citizen’s climate program and a co-author of the report, told the Guardian. “They were knowingly caused by fossil fuel companies that chose to inflict this suffering to maintain their profits.”

The fossil fuel industry is the primary cause of climate change. Calls for a phase-out of fossil fuels have been heard for years, but leaders at COP28 last year failed to agree on such a phase-out, instead stipulating a phase-out of oil, coal and natural gas this decade and committing to tripling renewable energy sources by 2030, with a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

But analysis shows that none of the production and transition plans of the world’s 25 largest fossil fuel companies match the temperature targets agreed at the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris. Big oil turned out in large numbers for COP28 in the United Arab Emirates, a petrostate, and there is little sign of change, with this year’s COP29 also being held in a petrostate that has pledged to continue investing in fossil fuels.

The victims of last summer’s heat waves were diverse, some elderly and with pre-existing health conditions, others young and healthy. “Some were homeless, like the man who died after breaking both legs jumping over a fence in a desperate attempt to find shade outside an elementary school; others were affluent, like the woman who died in her million-dollar Scottsdale home,” the memo said.

“These companies have made trillions of dollars from their irresponsible conduct, while ordinary citizens, like the victims of the July 2023 heat wave, are paying the price,” he added. “These victims deserve as much justice as victims of street homicides.”

A starting point for prosecutors

heat wave in Arizonaheat wave in Arizona
Courtesy of Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The number of lawsuits related to fossil fuels and climate has increased sharply in recent years. In the United States, 40 states and cities have filed lawsuits against major oil companies for their contributions to climate change and climate change denial. Each of these cases relies on civil claims such as tort law and anti-racketeering protection.

Public Citizen has also proposed filing lawsuits against the companies, including for manslaughter. While the theory seems far-fetched, it has attracted interest from experts, officials, and even potential voters. And while such legal action remains difficult to bring, the memo is a step toward putting the idea into practice.

“While civil remedies are of course essential, sometimes only our criminal laws can match the harm an individual has done,” said Cindy Cho, a former federal prosecutor and co-author of the brief. “If human-caused climate change is killing people, and the organizations that caused it know the risks, it makes sense that criminal prosecutions are exactly what society expects.”

Although the memo focuses on Arizona, its authors stress that this climate event was “not a unique event,” with extreme weather events like heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, and more killing thousands of Americans both on the mainland and in the U.S.

“The charges outlined in this memo provide a starting point for similar analyses that could, and should, be undertaken by prosecutors in every jurisdiction that experiences loss of life due to climate disasters,” they write.

The note comes as another report from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment found that since 2015, about 230 climate change-related lawsuits have been filed against companies and trade associations, two-thirds of which began in 2020 and later. The United States was responsible for more than half (129) of these lawsuits, although only 15% of the cases involved companies.

The importance of climate litigation was highlighted by a UNEP report last year, with the programme’s head of international environmental law saying it “has become an undeniably significant trend in how stakeholders seek to advance climate action and accountability”.

  • Anay MridulAnay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen’s resident journalist. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and now travels and reports across Asia. He is passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, food, veganism, food tech, writing about it all, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.