The death penalty, and why it is never justified

Richard Parncutt 

February 2017, revised March 2017


Eliminating 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 killing.

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 is never justified, which is the main aim of this statement.

Five quasi-universal principles of punishment

The 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.

1. Proportionality

Every child knows that the size or a punishment should be proportional to the size of the crime. That's how 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 disagree 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 penalties.

That raises an interesting question. What are the "worst crimes", in fact? Even death-penalty advocates will agree that every human life has 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 assessement, 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 absurd?

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.

2. Equality and human rights

A second 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 too. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN adopted in 1948, goes into detail about how different people can and should 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, liberty 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 by comparison to their crimes. Anyway, people were still traumatized by the horrors of war. They were relieved that they had survived, and preoccupied 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 with good 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 avoid hypocrisy.

I will call this the hypocrisy principle. A positive label would be preferable, and integrity and consistency are candidates; but those words are also used in a more general way.

To avoid hypocrisy, the state should obey its own laws.
The 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.

4. 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 crimes.

The 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.

5. Error management

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 process 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 instance.

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.
The aim of punishment

There is another basic issue in legal philosophy lurking here. What is the 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 the future. If we apply that principle consistently, the crime rate should gradually and sustainably approach zero. We might call this the sustainability principle.

Many 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). But even 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 people is not such a society.

Non-violence in ethics and religion

All 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 this 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 knows what these words actually mean. Jihad refers primarily to the duty 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 God, 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 identical (more), 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). The overwhelming tendency in (monotheistic and other) religions and their rituals is to promote a peace-loving attitude. The origin of this ancient wisdom is 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 example.

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 they 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.

That 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 to find a 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.

Just 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 agree with the arguments. We can be rational if we want to. But our emotions are influenced 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 International

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 Amnesty International, which I have actively and continuously supported 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 everywhere. 

I also remember when the infamous Austrian politician Jörg Haider died in 2008, in a car accident of his own causing. For decades, Haider had dragged Austrian politics back in the direction of fascism. He had caused more damage to the country its inhabitants and reputation than anyone. By fanning the flames of racism for decades, he probably indirectly caused thousands of deaths. When he died, some lefties and greenies celebrated. Alexander van der Bellen, the green politician who later became Austrian president, was not among them. Vdb reminded us that every death is a tragedy, and he was right.

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 never 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.

Hopefully Steven Pinker is right that the human tendency toward violence is gradually subsiding. The trouble is, global catastrophes enabled by modern technology (nuclear war, 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:

I 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.

Even 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 logical argument.

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 change. But 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. Second, faced with the possible consequences of implementing the new agreement, even hard-core death-penalty supporters would change their minds. The penny would finally drop.

Another 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 based on 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.

The 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.

Readers 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 penalty is never justified.

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.

False accusations

I was accused of a shopping list of things that I never did. I should have expected that. I was criticizing 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:

  1. Probably every second person in the world supports the death penalty for the most serious crimes.
  2. 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 of deaths.
  3. Global warming will probably cause hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of deaths. We are effectively putting those people on death row. Like real prisoners on real death rows, they will die prematurely with a certain probability.
  4. Influential 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.
These 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.

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 them.

At the time, climate deniers and the media gleefully reported that I had "called for" the death penalty for certain people. The motivation behind this lie was ultimately financial. Deniers make money out of their links to the fossil fuel industry; part of their "job" is to destroy the reputations of their opponents. The media make money out of sensationalism.

In fact, my statement was mainly about the right to life of a billion people--children living right now in developing countries, as well as future generations. It is even more important to promote their rights than to end the death penalty, because global warming is threatening the lives of such enormous numbers of people. Of course both projects are important, but given the limited resources of those who care about this problem, we also have to consider priorities. Two fundamental assumptions are relevant: human lives are the most important aspect of human values, and every human life has the same value.

For inspiring me to write on this issue, which I have done extensively at, I am grateful to Amnesty International, especially for their regular newsletters. I have been a member of Amnesty for decades and participated in countless urgent actions and letter writing campaigns to stop the death penalty--both in specific cases and universally. I donated  more than the membership fee to Amnesty Austria every year since 1999, and before that to Amnesty UK. From 1999 to 2010 my yearly donation was €87,20 (converted from Austrian shillings). Since 2011, I donated €100 Euros per year. Doubters are welcome to contact Amnesty Austria directly. To everyone else: please support Amnesty, whose activities are funded entirely by membership fees.


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 I 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 start, and 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 exist.

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 climate change 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.

If 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. The 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 by now.

Geo-engineering solutions are possible, but so far no-one has a feasible plan to remove such enormous amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmophere. The probability of discovering a miraculous technological or biological fix is 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 to 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 warming (more) and thereby save millions of future lives. The legal proceedings would be happening either 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 children to 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 problem.

It is still possible to limit the damage. The global energy revolution is finally happening. But if we are effectively killing a future person 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.

To 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 Universal 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 billion human lives. The 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 warming).

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.

Extracts from selected emails 

The 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 agree with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my position.

"Your 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 future generations."

"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 there 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 periodicals.’
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."

"I 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 to 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."

"Thank 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 this page are the authors' personal opinions.
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