death penalty, and why it is never justified
February 2017, revised March 2017
the death penalty is one of the great challenges of our time. The
problem is not only important for its own sake - a world without the
death penalty would also be a world with more respect for human life
generally. It would be a world with less violence of all kinds. The
best way to stop people being killed is to stop participating in the
The problem involves both politics and education. A Gallup poll in 2000
revealed that about half of all people in the world still support the
death penalty (more).
This is astonishing when you consider the clarity and simplicity of the
arguments against it, and the consistency with which these
arguments have been presented for so many decades by Amnesty
International and the United Nations. Surely people have realised by
now that the death penalty never achieves anything?
Attitudes to the death penalty depend on many factors. First, there are
differences between countries and regions. For example, support is
higher in the US than in Western Europe. Then there are effects of
"race" - within the USA, apparently most whites are in favor and most blacks are
against, and there is an appalling positive relationship between racism
and death-penalty support (more).
Beyond that, there is an inverse
relation between educational level and support for the death penalty.
The better your education, the more likely you are to realise that the
death penalty is never justified. One solution, then, is to
improve education for everyone, which is also important for its own sake.
Another is to find
clear, direct ways to convince people that the death penalty
never justified, which is the main aim of this statement.
Five quasi-universal principles
law seems complicated, but it is based on simple principles that every
child can understand. Each of the following principles
has interesting implications for the death penalty.
Every child knows that the
size or a punishment should be proportional to the size of the crime.
parents have traditionally trained their children to understand and
respect rules of
social behavior. Anything else would be unfair. The
same should apply in every court of law. This is the principle of proportionality, and it is often considered to be
universal. Presumably, most members of every known culture in the world
would agree with it.
Societies all over the world have followed this idea to its apparently
logical conclusion, claiming that most serious crimes should be
punished by torture or death. The
most serious crimes have often been seen as those that contradict
social order as reflected by the current power structure. This has
given rulers since time immemorial an excuse to torture or
kill their enemies. Their other subjects were afraid to
lest they suffer the same fate, creating a rule of terror. The torture
chambers in the dungeons of European castles show how frighteningly
recent such attitudes are. But the traditional legal systems
of many nomadic and indigenous cultures also included death
raises an interesting question. What are the "worst crimes", in fact?
Even death-penalty advocates will agree that every human life
the same value. Anything else would be
blatantly racist, sexist, ageist, or some other kind of -ist. After
all, many death-penalty advocates are also
opposed to abortion. Their "pro-life"
position is based on the equal value of every human life. They merely
take this idea too far and forget that women also have equal rights,
which include reproductive rights.
On that basis, most people will agree that the worst crimes are those
that cause the
largest numbers of deaths. Therefore, the principle of
proportionality suggests that the death penalty is justified for
genocide and similar
offenses. But genocide is not the only way one person can cause
enormous numbers of deaths. Other examples include the fossil fuel
industry, whose activities are enabled and supported by influential
climate denial networks. This industry could indirectly be causing
millions of future deaths.
According to well-known principles of risk
the effective number of deaths caused by a future disaster is a
product of two numbers: the number of deaths caused by that disaster
and the probability of that disaster happening. The risk R (here, the effective number of deaths) is the loss L in scenario i (here, the number of deaths in that scenario) multiplied by the probability
p of that scenario: R = Li p(Li). More generally, the risk is a sum of such products: R = ∑Li p(Li).
Toward the end of this century, hunger,
disease, and violence resulting from global warming could kill hundreds
of millions of people; the associated probability is moderate
(neither high nor low). If 200 million people will die with a
probability of 50%, that is like 100 million dying with a probability
of 100%. Given the unpredictable size of climate
feedback effects and interactions between different effects of global
warming, climate change could kills billions. If one billion die with a
probability of 10%, that is the same as 100 million dying with a
probability of 100%. The estimates in these examples are deliberately
conservative - people familiar with the detailed predictions of climate
science, the multiple interacting consequences of climate change, and
the dependency of human food and water supplies on fragile ecosystems,
may predict larger numbers of deaths.
An interesting counterexample is the
condom ban of the Catholic church, which during the 1980s and 1990s
probably indirectly caused millions of AIDS deaths by restricting
access to a life-saving device, especially in Africa. That may be
absolutely horrifying, but global warming will be much worse.
For political reasons, the death penalty will never be applied in such
cases. The accused would have too much political power and influence.
Besides, most people would consider it absurd to apply the death penalty to such people.
But if those cases are absurd, surely the death penalty is generally
Clearly, the principle of proportionality cannot be applied
consistently to the death penalty.
That makes the death penalty inherently unfair, which alone
is a good reason never to apply it. But there are several
other good reasons.
Equality and human rights
universal principle of justice that every child understands is this:
Everyone is equal before the law. Everyone should have the same
opportunity. If my brother gets an icecream, I should get one
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN adopted in
1948, goes into detail about how different people can and
be treated equally, in different ways and situations. Equality is
addressed directly in Article 7: "All are equal before the law and are
entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law."
The declaration contains a
problematic ambiguity: it does not explicitly prohibit the death
penalty, but two of its articles clearly point to such a
prohibition. Article 3 says "Everyone has the right to life,
and security of person." If "everyone" includes convicted criminals,
then they also have the right to life. Article 5 says "No one shall be
subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or
punishment." The death penalty is obviously all three of these
things: cruel, inhuman, and degrading.
Some of the countries that adopted the declaration have nevertheless
continued to kill their political opponents. Does their
right hand know what their left hand is doing?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is surely one of humanity's greatest achievements.
It was a reaction
to the Holocaust - the worst crime of all time. A
primary aim was to prevent a recurrence of genocide. The confusion
about the death penalty may have to do with events
immediately following the war. In 1945,
few people thought it was problematic that the
worst Nazi criminals would be executed. Their punishment seemed small
comparison to their crimes. Anyway, people were still traumatized by
the horrors of war. They were relieved that they had
with day-to-day problems. A few decades later, at the trials that followed the Rwandan genocide,
the world had changed. The prevailing international legal opinion was
that the death penalty was never justified, but within Rwanda it was
still an accepted part of law.
In hindsight we can look back and see that
even the executions following the Nuremburg trials were wrong, because
all executions are wrong. It may seem obvious now, but this attitude is
relatively recent and it seems that many people still disagree with it,
even in liberal Europe.
The death penalty contradicts the principle of equality in other important ways. People
connections are often exempt, because they can indirectly influence
proceedings. A jury is less likely to agree to a death sentence if the
accused otherwise has a good reputation. Another well-known problem is
that those who belong to the right "race"
are executed less often. In the USA, for example, there is a strong and
consistent tendency to execute more blacks than whites relative to the
proportion of blacks and whites in the population. Although the reasons
for this are complex, we can still reasonably claim that the death
penalty is part of a racist social system and argue that it should be
abandoned for that reason alone.
3. Avoiding hypocrisy
A third popular moral principle that every child understands is this:
Those who administer justice should practice what they preach. If
I am a child and my dad says I should spend less time staring at my
mobile phone, he
should do the same. Christians and others who have read and thought
about the gospel stories know how important it is to identify and
I will call this the hypocrisy principle. A positive label
would be preferable, and integrity
are candidates; but those words are also used in a more general way.
To avoid hypocrisy, the state should obey its own laws.
corruption in the private sector
is illegal, the government should not engage in it.
- If it is
steal, the state should not steal either. Taxes are an obvious
exception: money is created by the state on the implicit
condition that citizens will play according to the rules and fund the
state's operations according to their means.
- If it is
illegal to sell a
gun to someone who might use it to kill someone else, the state should
not allow the sale of weapons to another state that might use them to
kill people. The only way to uphold this principle unambiguously is to
stop all international arms sales.
implication is clear. Individuals should not kill except in
self-defense, and neither should the state. Evidently, many people
don't get this. But in reality nothing could be simpler.
- If it is
illegal to kill except in
self-defense, the state should not kill except in self-defense.
This counts out not only the death penalty but also all
foreign military escapades that do not clearly have the character of
self-defense, which includes most US foreign bombing raids
since 1945 (more).
The role of premeditation
Every child knows that you should not do bad things on purpose.
Accidents can be forgiven, but not carefully planned acts of mischief.
In law, this is the principle of premeditation. Premeditated crimes are
more serious and attract larger punishments than accidental
death penalty can be seen as a form of premeditated murder. The state decides to kill after a
long and careful procedure. I have already mentioned hypocrisy. What
could be more hypocritical than that?
Of course a judge must think long and hard, and consult all
relevant witnesses, experts, and juries, before sentencing someone to
death. But the similarity between this process and premeditated murder
is striking and cannot be ignored. The only reasonable solution is to
abandon the death penalty altogether.
Every child knows that their parents make mistakes. If children are
playing and something goes wrong, the parents are unlikely to know the
whole story. They have to reconstruct it, and in the
wrong person can be blamed.
The same is true for courts of law: the evidence is never complete, and
judgments are often incorrect. The unjustly accused therefore have the
right to take their case to a higher instance. The right to appeal is
enshrined in the legal systems of most countries: If you think the
court made a mistake, you can take your case to a higher level or
Usually this system works, but there is a big exception. The death
penalty denies the right to appeal. You can't appeal if you are dead.
Summarizing so far, I have presented five quasi-universal principles:
proportionality, equality, (avoidance
of) hypocrisy, (the
role of) premeditation, and error management.
principle of proportionality seems at first glance to be consistent
with the death penalty, but for political reasons it is impossible to
apply the death penalty in a proportional fashion.
death penalty contradicts the principle of equality in two ways. First,
it contradicts the legal foundations of equality as set out in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Second, in practice people with
connections or the right "race" are executed less often.
death penalty is hypocritical. If the state declares that it is illegal
for citizens to kill each other except in self-defence, it should
follow its own rules.
crimes are worse than accidental ones. The death penalty can be regarded as
premeditated murder by the state.
aim of punishment
courts can make mistakes. Usually, they can be corrected by appeal
processes. The death penalty eliminates this possibility.
There is another basic issue in legal philosophy lurking here. What is
aim of punishment, in fact? Is it to exact revenge? Is it to
protect society from a dangerous person? Is it to teach someone a
lesson in the hope that they will never do that bad thing again? Is it
to give someone time to think about what happened and develop a new
personal identity that rejects crime?
If we are willing to take responsibility for the society we live in,
and care about our children who will inherit our world after we die, we
realise that the most
important aim of punishment is to reduce the
probability that the crime in question will happen again in
future. If we apply that principle consistently, the crime
gradually and sustainably approach zero. We might call this the
death-penalty supporters believe that the death penalty achieves this
by acting as a deterrent to serious crimes. The trouble is, the
research does not on the whole support this
belief, although the results of some empirical studies are unclear (more).
if the death penalty did work as a deterrent, that would not justify
it, for the other reasons I have presented. In any case, there is a more reliable way to reduce the probability of
serious crimes from murder to genocide, and that is to work toward a
society in which such crimes
are unthinkable. A society that selectively kills its own
is not such a society.
Non-violence in ethics and religion
major religions the world over teach variants of "Thou shall
not kill" (more) as an
absolute principle with specific exceptions. The main exceptions are self defense,
war, and execution. The reasons for these exceptions in ancient texts
may be specific to social and cultural context. Traditional
justifications for executions are no longer considered valid, and war
is more problematic than it used to be. But there is still general
agreement, even among pacifists, that killing is justified in clear
cases of self-defense.
Religious scriptures are not perfect, and they are
often ambiguous about the pros and cons of violence, "holy war", "just
war" and so on. But contrary to popular belief, Islam is not worse in
respect. Check out the more bloodthirsty passages in the Old Testament
before criticizing the Quran.
Everyone's talking about jihad and Islam, but hardly anyone
what these words actually mean. Jihad refers primarily to the
of all Muslims to
exert themselves to realise God’s will and lead good
lives. The word has another well-known, shocking meaning, but that is not the primary meaning. The word "islam" itself refers to submission or surrender to the will of
which is the exact opposite of violence. The related word "salam" or
"salaam" additionally refers to peace, well-being, safety (more).
Concepts of Allah, Yayweh and God in the Abrahamic religions are almost
referring to an all-powerful, all-merciful, all-knowing, compassionate, provident
being. In the (omni-) presence of the ultimate judge of
humankind, humility is required - the opposite of violence.
Like other religions, Islam is ultimately based on love (more).
overwhelming tendency in (monotheistic and other) religions and their
rituals is to
promote a peace-loving attitude. The origin of this ancient
evidently the simple
realisation that the best way to sustainably reduce violence is to stop
participating in it.
The case of Singapore
Singapore is a beautiful place. But to my knowledge the
majority of the population still supports the death penalty for murder,
drug offences and a list of other crimes. Singapore is not alone in
this regard, of course - but allow me to use it as a quasi-random
I met a lovely Singaporean
family once. They were the nicest people - I could have invited them
for dinner. The mother explained to me that her two boys could die if
became addicted to illegal drugs, and she was right. I also have
children and sometimes I worry about that too. Therefore, she said, the
government is right to execute drug traffickers.
At the time I was so
shocked that I didn't know what to say. In retrospect I should have
pointed out that killing a drug trafficker only increases the number
of deaths that we could have prevented. It is more effective to put the
culprit behind bars, where s/he can't traffic any more drugs.
kind lady thought that it was unfairto
allow someone to live who might risk the lives of her children. What I
should have said in reply is this. Her idea of fairness was based on
revenge, which is surely a primitive emotion. Should we not instead try
rational solution - to this and other problems in the world?
Moreover, every executed drug trafficker also has a
mother, and how do you think she feels about it? And besides, how can
you be sure that your own children will never be caught trafficking
drugs into Singapore? The children of the nicest people get into all
kinds of trouble when they start to get adventurous and want to test
the limits, and everyone can make a mistake. That's no excuse for drug
trafficking, but it is certainly not a reason to kill someone.
If she was still not convinced, I would ask if she was religious, and
then ask what her god or holy scriptures say about killing people, or
about appropriate attitudes towards one's enemies.
summarizing: it's always possible to jail criminals for an
indefinite period and in that way to ensure with high probability that
no one will come to harm, let alone be killed. That is always better
than killing someone. These days, criminals
seldom escape from high security, and if they do they are soon tracked
down and recaptured (more).
Thoughts versus emotions
Why then do so many people - including many Christians and Muslims -
still support the death penalty? Surely that is a contradiction?
Looking at this question psychologically, we can try to separate
thoughts from emotions. In our thoughts, we may understand and
the arguments. We can be rational if we want to. But our emotions are
by revenge, which has always been a powerful force in human
affairs. If that is the problem, we may be able to solve it
through therapy or meditation. But if a whole society wants to solve
the problem, it must make the death penalty legally obsolete.
That is not to say that emotions are bad. On the contrary, this text,
and countless texts like it, are motivated by positive emotions. The
point is to try to understand when our emotions are coloring our
thoughts, and act accordingly.
The approach of Amnesty
If we decide on this basis to reject violence altogether, we must universally
reject both torture and the death penalty.
If we want to punish someone for killing other people, we had better
practice what we preach and avoid violence. This is the approach of
International, which I have actively supported through regular
donations, letter-writing campaigns, and urgent actions since the
mid-1990s. There are many other reasons for completely and absolutely
ending the death penalty, as listed here,
and I have supported every one of them since that time.
I first became aware of Amnesty's position on the death penalty in 1989
when Nicolae Ceaușescu was executed by a Romanian military tribunal
following a short show trial. Most people responded as the media did,
expressing relief that this cruel dictator was finally dead. Amnesty
explained, as they have always done, that this is an inappropriate
response. The death penalty is never justified, even in such extreme
cases. All criminals, including the very worst, should be tried fairly
by a court of law, and the worst punishment should be indefinite
imprisonment. According to this principle, even the worst Nazi
Holocaust perpetrators convicted at the Nuremburg trials should not
have been executed.
I remember being surprised by this argument at first, back in December
1989. Then I realised that Amnesty was right. Theirs is the only
consistent position. Among other things, it is consistent with the
overarching aim of reducing or eliminating violence with the ultimate
aim of improving security and quality of life for people
China is still executing hundreds or perhaps thousands of criminals
secretly every year. Many other countries such as Iran and the USA are
still continuing their barbaric traditions, as if the Middle Ages had
ended. But they are under increasing pressure from the UN, Amnesty
International, and their own
citizens to have the courage to get rid of the death penalty for good,
as for example Australia did half a century ago, in 1967.
right that the human tendency toward violence is gradually subsiding.
The trouble is, global catastrophes enabled by modern technology
climate change, genetically modified disease) may overtake us before
the death penalty finally disappears from the planet. Hopefully the end
of the world will not happen in the next few generations. In the
meantime I'm supporting Amnesty, and I invite all readers of this text
to do the same.
In 2012, I published a scandalous text in the internet. The title was a
question: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?" The answer to the
question was obviously "No", because the death penalty is never
justified. I explained why as follows:
have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have
always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty
International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist,
expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently, it does not
even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and
China will come to their senses soon.
mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the
politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course
the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest
doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him,
that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring
the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive
at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel
differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a
I then proposed limiting the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths. The
point was to attract attention to the massive human cost of climate
there was an interesting twist. If such a proposal were
accepted internationally, the result would probably be what we
anti-death-penalty activists have been working toward for decades: the
total end of the death
penalty. First, all
criminals on death row in all countries would be saved.
with the possible consequences of implementing the new agreement, even hard-core death-penalty supporters would
change their minds. The penny would finally drop.
penny might drop, too. People might finally realise that for political
reasons the death penalty can never be applied according to the
legal principle of proportionality in criminal law. It would become clear that there are people in
our midst who knowingly but indirectly cause enormous numbers of
deaths, but are never prosecuted. Others are executed for smaller
crimes such as murder, drug trafficking, rape, blasphemy, treason, and
so on. If death penalty is not being
applied proportionally, it
should not be applied at all.
The idea of
limiting the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths was
two principles: proportionality, and the equal value of every human life. Both principles are accepted
quasi-universally, so logically their combination should also be
universally accepted. The only open question is the size
of the number one million, which of course is arbitrary.
This kind of thinking can explain why the death penalty is still seriously proposed as a punishment for genocide by some legal scholars (more).
What exactly they think the death penalty will achieve in this or any
other case is unclear, but they somehow consider it to be "legitimate".
In a legal context, it would be practically impossible to accuse a
climate denier of causing a million deaths. Attribution would be very
difficult. There are too many uncertainties surrounding the future of
global climate, the (social/political) causal connection between
climate denial and emissions, and the (physical) causal connection
between emissions and climate change. In this scenario, the accused
would always be able to argue that the proposed connections are too
uncertain. They could get around arguments based on risk assessment
theory, because there is little precedent for such quantitative
arguments in law. All of this would happen as if the hundreds of
millions of victims of global warming did not exist.
uproar that followed the discovery of my scandalous text was
astonishing when you consider that I had presented an idea that most
people in the world, and even most people in liberal Western Europe,
would immediately agree with: to limit the death penalty to people who cause enormous numbers of deaths. I merely considered the
implications, asking which
people in the world might be candidates if the death penalty were
limited in this way.
were as shocked as I was by my conclusions. But it was my
intention to shock, in the hope that the world's most important
problems would at last be taken seriously. Wake up, world. Hopefully,
many people realised for the first time that (i) influential
climate denial is the most important social and political force behind
climate change, (ii) climate change will probably indirectly kill
hundreds of millions of people, and (iii) the death
Let's think about that in more detail for a moment. If a representative sample
of people from different countries were asked whether
the worst criminals of all time - those who caused more than a million
deaths each, for the purpose of argument - should have been put to death, the majority would say
"yes, of course". If as part of the survey one then tried to change
their minds by presenting some standard arguments against the death
penalty, such as the fact that the death penalty never actually
achieves anything, regardless of the magnitude of the crime, the
proportion supporting the death penalty in such extreme cases would
still be high - about half of the world's adult
population. This is a psychological, sociological, cultural and
political problem of global dimensions, and I would like to find
effective ways to address it.
was accused of a shopping list of things that I
never did. I should have expected that. I was
deniers, and lying is what they do for a living - on behalf of, and
funded by, the rich fossil fuel industry. Besides, I can hardly
accuse the deniers of exaggerating when I did so myself.
German speakers - even those who read and speak English fluently -
seemed to misunderstand the word "propose", which I used several
times, confusing it with "suggest", "call for", or even "demand".
None of these words corresponds exactly to German terms such as anregen, vorschlagen, or fordern.
When I "proposed" limiting the death penalty to criminals who cause a
million deaths, which would save all criminals currently on death row
anywhere, my intention was to put an idea out there that can be
discussed; the German equivalent is zur Diskussion stellen.
When an academic writes a "research proposal", she is not telling
a grant agency what to do, but offering some interesting ideas and
claiming that they have potential. A "marriage proposal" is not coercive - the other is free to accept or reject it. When a cook "proposes" a new desert, you don't have to eat it.
I did not
"call for" anything. Instead, I drew attention to some of the world's
most serious neglected problems. The title of my text was a question,
and the text itself mainly took the form of an argument. I considered
the following issues:
points include the word "probably" because much about this argument is
uncertain. But arguments are normally uncertain (otherwise there
would be no need to argue) and the uncertainty does not change the
fact that the lives of a billion people are threatened. This latter point is a fact, so the word "probably" is not necessary.
- Probably every second person in the world supports the death penalty for the most serious crimes.
- If our value system is based on the equal value
of every human life, the
most serious crimes are probably those that cause the largest numbers
- Global warming will probably cause hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of deaths.
climate denial is probably the biggest social and political force
behind climate change - since without the denial the problem would
probably be under control by now.
Rather than "calling for" something, I presented and discussed these
crucial issues and considered their connections and implications,
while at the same time emphasizing that I am opposed to the death
penalty in all cases. I invited people to talk about taboo topics, which can explain the contradictory responses to my text: people are generally reluctant to talk about points 1 and 2, and
usually refuse to talk about 3 and 4. But the problems will not be
solved until we emerge from our denial and start to talk about
My statement was not out of the blue. During the previous decade, I had been coming increasingly aware of a basic ethical
problem. What is more important to me personally -
the basic rights of a billion children in developing countries, or my personal
well-being? If I had a chance to promote their rights, but only by
risking my well-being, would I do it? I hope that I am only one of many people asking themselves this question.
From 2000 to 2010, I was
politically active in
the area of interculturality and anti-racism, culminating in an
international conference (cAIR10).
But I can only do this work of this kind in my limited spare time. So I
decided to try to identify today's most important issues on focus on
them (more). If human lives are the
foundation of our value system and every human life is equally
valuable, the problem of child mortality is even
more serious than everyday racism. Every day, 20 000 children die
unnecessarily in developing countries, mostly from hunger. Every day, right now!
In the rich countries, we are living our lives as if this is not
happening. This "poverty denial" is comparable with climate
denial. The good news is that the preventable child death rate has
been falling, slowly but surely, for decades. The bad news is that
climate change will make it
increase again and could double it
by the end of the century. This approximate prediction follows directly from common
knowledge about physical, social and political aspects of the
situation. But almost everyone is ignoring the future death toll in connection with climate change.
We are quietly refusing to consider the number of people that will probably
suffer and die as a
result. Instead we are talking about other aspects of
climate change - or avoiding the topic altogether.
What I did not know in 2012, as I wrote my scandalous text, was that climate deniers already had a lot of experience
harassing leading climate scientists (more). After discovering my text, they jumped on the chance to add me to their list, which I guess could
be interpreted as a compliment.
For those who want to
read the original, it is linked to my wiki pages. I am reluctant
to recommend it, because a few passages should never have been written,
and I was unable to change them. Nor could I delete the text from the internet, because after
deleted it, someone found it in
Google Cache and published it elsewhere against my will. From this I
learned that the internet
never forgets. Later,
I realised that the text itself (warts and all) is my best defence
against the nonsense that has been written about it, so perhaps it is
just as well that it can still be found.
The right to life of a billion people
In any case the death
penalty was not the main theme of my statement. It was merely a
hook to attact attention. My main aim - and I made it clear from the
emphasized it repeatedly - was to defend the basic rights of a billion
future victims of global warming. Our emissions are putting these
people on death row. Their rights are being ignored, as if they did not
The number one billion may seem like an exaggeration. I do not believe that it is, as I will explain. But even if it was, the precautionary principle suggests that we would still be talking about the biggest problem in today's world.
If human emissions suddenly stopped, the earth's temperature would continue
to rise for a few decades, causing hundreds of millions of
future deaths - spread out across a few or several decades. Assuming
that climate denial is the main reason why the fossil fuel industry was
not suppressed decades ago, as it should have been according to the
science at the time, it follows that climate denial has indirectly
caused hundreds of millions of deaths. If we combine modern research on
with knowledge about global agriculture, maintenance of fresh water
supplies, population growth, international migration,
and the causes of conflict and violence, we can predict with reasonable
confidence that roughly one billion people will die prematurely later
this century as an
indirect result of the human
emissions that are currently in the atmosphere.
this estimate can be criticized, it is only because it is so
approximate. It is no more than an order of magnitude. We need to
imagine a world whose population has reached 10 billion and whose
resources are increasingly limited. The amount of food and fresh water
will probably still be enough for the whole world, as it is today. But
limitations due to transport, politics, and conflict will mean that
large regions will not have enough food or water for long periods.
These will usually be the poorer and/or warmer regions. Agriculture
will be severely limited by changing weather, freak storms, pollution,
water shortages in dry areas, floods in wet areas, rising sea levels
(salination of previously fertile land), and species extinction.
Fishing will be limited by increasing acidity and reduced oxygen in sea
water and pollution. Some scientists are predicting massive species
extinction both on land and in the seas - as many as half of all
species could be extinct in a century. Tthe resultant loss of
biodiversity will drastically affect food production. In addition,
fresh water supplies will be limited by drought, deglaciation, and
water wars. This will cause and exacerbate fatal diseases, and expand
the affected geographic areas.
Climate change feedback is a vicious cycle that increases global
warming without any additional human input. It involves methane release
from the arctic, permafrost, and hydrates; rainforest drying and forest
fires; desertification; cloud feedback; and ice-albedo feedback. If we
ignore such feedback effects and consider only anthropogenic warming,
current political and climatic trends suggest that a few hundred
million people will die in connection with climate change toward the
end of this century. If we also consider climate change feedback, the
likely total death toll rises to billions - perhaps a third of the
world's population. These are reasonable estimates when one considers
the entire ecosystem of the earth, its obvious limitations, the growing
human population, and physical and political limitations on human
mobility. The fact that we are talking about the worst human tragedy
ever does not make the prediction any less valid.
If the size of a crime is proportional to the number of people who die
as a result, as I argued, global warming will be the worst
crime ever in human history. It will also be the worst ever case of racism,
because "race" is evidently the reason why we are ignoring the rights
of those who are likely to die or suffer the most. If the main predicted victims of global warming
were white, we would have done much more to solve the problem
solutions are possible, but so far no-one has a feasible plan to remove
such enormous amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from
probability of discovering a miraculous technological or biological
not high. The most likely scenario is that the predicted warming
will happen. Every decade from now until 2100, the situation
will get steadily worse.
How did it come to this? If we look carefully at the social and
political context of the past
few decades, in which annual global emissions rose steadily from year
at the same time as climate scientists were warning of the
consequences, we can see who carries the most responsibility for this
ominous development (more).
The most influential climate deniers have always
had full access to the predictions of the best climate science, and
even if they didn't, the basic principles can be understood by any
child. Greenhouse gases are like blankets in the earth's atmosphere,
and if you put more blankets on your bed, it will get warmer.
If we were serious about defending the basic rights of children in
developing countries, we would be identifying most
influential climate deniers of the past few decades and charging
them with systematically impeding projects to slow global
and thereby save millions of future lives. The legal proceedings would
within their own countries (more)
or internationally (more).
But hardly anyone has the courage to talk about this, it seems. We are
not taking the rights of a billion children seriously. The right of a
multinational cooperation to make a profit is being treated
as more important than the right of a billion
live to a reasonable age and enjoy a reasonable quality of life. What
could be more shocking than that?
Given the extreme urgency of these issues, unconventional literary
forms are justified. My 2012 text did not hurt anyone, but evidently
thousands of people (millions, for all I know) realised for the first
time that climate change is not only about polar bears - it is a matter
of life and death for untold millions of people. If my text indirectly
reduced by 0.1% the
probability that a billion people will die prematurely as a
result of global warming, it effectively saved a million lives.
If my text reduced that probability by 0.0001%, it effectively saved a
thousand lives. These are not wild claims; they are true
statements that follow directly from risk assessment theory. They don't
make me a hero, but they do serve to underline the seriousness of the
still possible to limit the damage. The
global energy revolution is finally happening. But if we are effectively killing a
every time we burn a thousand tons of fossil carbon (more), and if we are serious
about defending the basic rights of every human being on the planet, the revolution should be happening much faster than
was agreed in Paris.
enable a fast transition to sustainable energy, we urgently need legal
procedures to prevent
influential climate denial. A legal approach based on human
rights is possible and realistic. If Holocaust denial can be made illegal, so can climate denial. A legal foundation to protect the rights
of children in developing countries already exists, namely the
Declaration of Human Rights. It is widely respected and partially
implemented in many
different ways in many national legal systems.
The bottom line
In closing, allow me to make two main points.
We are talking about a
future victims of global warming are
today's children in developing countries. They really exist, right now.
They are not
"future generations", although of course future generations are also
important. The lives of a billion children living right now really will
be shortened by global
warming, which in plain English means that global warming will kill them, which
means our emissions are
killing them, which means we are killing them. That
these claims follow logically from one another is obvious; the example
could be straight from a philosophy textbook. The shocking nature of
these statements changes nothing about their truth content (whether
they are true is independent of whether they are shocking). If we
actively suppress such claims or statements, we are engaging in denial
(which also follows logically from the previous statements). But we
have known about these causal relationships for several decades, and
there has never been a good excuse for denying them.
This is the most
important issue in current politics.
If we assume that every human life has the same value, and apply risk
assessment theory and order-of-magnitude estimates to this problem in a
rational way, we see that global warming is more serious that all other
comparable problems of global proportions, such as for example the
rising wealth gap, the risk of nuclear war, the risk of a genetically
manipulated pandemic, or the asylum crisis (without considering global
It is time for the legal profession, and everyone else, to realise that
humans need food and fresh water to survive,
and global warming will irreversibly reduce both. If you don't survive, you die. It's as simple as
that. Snap out of it, folks. It's
not too late, but one day it will be.
from selected emails
following texts were copied verbatim, with permission of the
authors, from emails that I received
during December 2012 and January 2013. I do not necessarily
with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my
argument regarding the death
penalty is an extreme view but I am
sympathetic. I was more surprised by how vituperative and ignorant some
people have been in response. Good on you for pointing out how research
is carried out, the motivation of scientists and the implications for
"I am always amazed how people, the so-called climate sceptics among
them, find it difficult to cope with doubts and uncertainties such as
those that you showed in your text. You gave expression to an important
moral dilemma: on one hand the refusal to kill, and the freedom of
expression, and on the other hand the fact that people make obviously
very wrong decisions that affect us all and that you want to stop. And
so they pounce on some words, take them out of context and suddenly you
seem to advocate a totalitarian view. Ah well..."
‘At any given moment
is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas
which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without
question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other,
but it is “not done” to say it, just as in
mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention
trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the
prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising
effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given
a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to
Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary
Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."
am sure you know best, that you
haven't done your masterpiece with
this article, but your intentions were good and pure. Everybody, who
knows you, knows that you are a good and honest man. As your article
shows you are also passionate about the future of your children and of
whole the mankind."
"I just wanted to let you know that I think it was a really good idea
publish your thoughts on the page of the university. I saw the death
penalty as a metapher for "this should have consequences", nothing
else…and there are no organizations on the world that caused
more pain, deaths and wars than religions. You might have read
“god is not great”…I’m really
happy someone who a few people listen too has addressed at least one
very critical topic."
you for the interesting
article. It's a sad world where you can't
even make a logical argument any more..."
Apart from the excerpts from emails, the opinions expressed on
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