Considering human-caused climate change is “unequivocal,” shouldn’t climate denial be illegal?

This might not surprise many of you, but I want to talk about the new IPCC climate report. What might surprise you is that I want to talk only about one word in the report: “unequivocal.” Ok, two more as well: “virtually certain,” which is scientific shorthand for a 99-100% certainly level (one rarely used by scientists).

The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) starts with a bombshell in a report filled with them:

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred” (p. 5).

The report then unpacks that, using unequivocal again:

Talk about a hockey stick. Our industrial experiment is cooking the Earth. (Image from SPM, p 7.)

“Observed increases in well-mixed greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations since around 1750 are unequivocally caused by human activities” (p. 5).

It then goes on to explain that human activities (specifically releasing CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases—including CFCs and HFCs—into the atmosphere) has caused a 1.1°C increase on average (with 1.59°C over land and 0.88°C over oceans). More disturbingly, the report actually notes that this increase could be higher—as much as 2°C—but is countered by cooling effects such as air pollution.

The SPM then goes on to make clear how this is changing rainfall patterns, raising ocean levels, acidifying the ocean, and melting glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet.* “Virtually certain” is used 10 times in the report.

The data couldn’t be clearer. These virtually certain findings are from the SPM, pages 6 and 6, 10, 19, 19, 28, and 28 and 33 respectively. (Image from NASA. Compiled by Erik Assadourian)

Of course, that doesn’t get to the far scarier stuff that is only highly likely or possible, based on historical trends. Like this gem:

“Over the next 2000 years, global mean sea level will rise by about 2 to 3 m if warming is limited to 1.5°C, 2 to 6m if limited to 2°C and 19 to 22 m with 5°C of warming, and it will continue to rise over subsequent millennia” (p. 28). Let’s unpack that: 19-22 meters. That means many cities and entire lands will be lost.

I often used this figure in presentations, showing at what sea level rise will inundate certain cities. More than words can, it very clearly shows what’s at stake, even if its projections now look far too conservative. (From

What We Do Matters

The quote also reveals the important point that what we do today matters. While it is no longer possible to stop 1.5°C or maybe even 2°C, it is possible to stop a 5°C temperature increase. In other words, what we do matters not just for ourselves (do we act or do we accept our culpability in the mass suffering and die-off of peoples around the world, entire lands, and the beautiful legacy of Gaia—from redwood trees to polar bears?) but also to the next several millennia of human civilization. Jesus, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Muhammad all walked the Earth two millennia ago (give or take about six centuries). Imagine the people of two thousand years hence. Perhaps they’ll be an ocean-faring species, but then again, considering that acidification and microplastic pollution** may have emptied out the oceans maybe not. (Though jellyfish are predicted to bloom in the acidified waters of the future, so depending on their micronutrient makeup—and whether we can sustain our ship-building technology—maybe humans will one day follow the jellyfish blooms like ancient nomads did with buffalo, caribou, and other game?)

It’s truly horrific that we find ourselves here, where even John Kerry—special envoy for the climate from the country that allowed political leaders to polarize this issue culminating with Trump’s withdrawal of the Paris accord—said the sixth assessment is just another report, arguing that “it feels like one more in a series of warnings which have been made over 30 years plus.” We need action. Now. Even if we can’t stop climate change, perhaps we can keep it to a level that holds sea level rise to just six meters, prevents some species from dying, and enables humans to stay civilized verses returning to our worst impulses (slavery and nationalism spring to mind).

But most people are still in denial of climate change’s threat, and worse, many intentionally sow confusion about climate change to sustain that denial. So here’s a proposal: now that human-driven climate change is deemed virtually certain—unequivocal—by the world’s scientific community, why don’t we make climate denial illegal, just as Holocaust denial is illegal in 17 countries?

Don’t worry, this wouldn’t mean your retired Uncle Joe is going to go to jail. This would specifically apply to those with political or economic motives who are spreading misinformation with the intent to sow denial, or as this journal article frames it, to defraud the public. So oil companies, car manufacturers, airlines, utilities, beef companies, policymakers receiving money from these interests,*** and other “leaders” who know (or should know) better, would be held accountable—ideally with significant fines (perhaps even a percentage of corporate revenues or individual incomes as speeding tickets in Finland are proportional to income levels).****

Making Climate Denial Illegal

I’m sure many of you are thinking, no, this will never get through Congress. Of course not (see note 3). But it wouldn’t need to. If a law like this passed a few progressive European states and/or California, any corporations doing business there would have to follow their rules (the same reason why California emissions standards influence broader national and global standards). And with California’s ballot initiative process, passing this might be possible. Strategists would have to figure out if/how this could be enacted. But as Holocaust Denial laws show, reining in speech that is harmful to the public is possible.*****

A pyrocumulus cloud in Azusa Canyon in California (Image by JeremyaGreene via Wikipedia).

Ultimately, making climate denial illegal isn’t going to save humanity from climate change. But it will help in the fight to stop climate change, undermining (like rising tides are undermining coastal settlements) a key tool in the arsenal of oil companies and other special interests who are existentially threatened by efforts to address climate change. So why not? If we can’t even do this, well, it’s virtually certain that the human species is going to destroy itself in a blaze of stupidity—pyrocumulus clouds and all.


*There was less agreement, which came as a surprise to me, on the fate of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

**With plastic’s durability, plastic could still be in the ocean food web even then, bubbling up occasionally from the ocean floor disturbed by a vent or volcano. (Though I’ll put a low confidence indicator on that one!)

***There are 139 representatives and senators in the United States that continue to deny the scientific reality of climate change and have received $61 million in lifetime contributions from the fossil fuel industry (so far). That’s a quarter of the elected body, and yes, since you’re wondering, all of these are Republicans.

****The devil, of course, is in the details. Reasonable people can disagree on solutions and how much to actually address climate change, but to intentionally muddy the waters should be no different than calling out fire in a crowded theater or taking your cattle into a public stream and well, muddying the waters—and sickening downstream herds and people. You’re either foolishly risking the public for laughs or putting your own interest above the common interest—neither of which are generally legal, and it doesn’t make sense why it wouldn’t be the same in this case.

*****There are arguments, even by respectable thinkers like Noam Chomsky, for enabling all forms of free speech over limiting harmful speech. But considering the stakes and the monetary holdings of powerful interests (and thus their power to speak—through marketing, giving campaign contributions, and lobbying) not reining in corporations’ and wealthy individuals’ ability to cultivate climate denial pretty much guarantees these interests will run out the clock before any significant changes can be implemented. Not bad for them (as they can probably find ways to profit in the collapse) but horrific for the vast majority of people, and the millions of other species that’ll be affected as we undergo an accelerated and sustained climate transition.

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