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Experts reveal legal theory that could hold major oil companies responsible for millions of deaths: 'Prosecutors should act accordingly'

"The scope of the lethality is so vast … it may eventually dwarf all other homicide cases in the United States, combined."

"The scope of the lethality is so vast ... it may eventually dwarf all other homicide cases in the United States, combined."

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A new legal theory proposed by a consumer advocacy group could provide a viable avenue to prosecute oil giants for "climate homicide," as mounting evidence shows Big Oil has been well aware of the deadly consequences of burning dirty fuels for decades — and chose to ignore them. 

What's happening?

As Grist reported, oil companies could potentially be tried in the U.S. for "every kind of homicide," aside from first-degree murder, which requires premeditated, deliberate intent to kill. 

The public advocacy nonprofit Public Citizen first proposed the legal theory last year, writing in a paper recently published in Harvard Environmental Law Review that oil and gas giants have been "killing members of the public at an accelerating rate," per the news outlet.

Oil companies like Exxon were warned of the life-threatening hazards of polluting fuels nearly 50 years ago. However, they tried to downplay their role in the climate crisis and even blocked attempts to reduce pollution, as reported by Inside Climate News.

Public Citizen believes this is grounds to take Big Oil to court for at least involuntary manslaughter, if not homicide or felony murder, according to Grist

Why is this concerning?

The fact that oil companies could face homicide lawsuits is a huge step forward in the fight for a cleaner, safer future. 

However, Grist stated that human-induced warming has already killed an estimated 4 million people in the 21st century.

The outlet explained that by 2100, that number of deaths could occur each year because of the impacts of the changing climate, according to the paper by David Arkush, the director of Public Citizen's climate program, and Donald Braman, a George Washington University law professor.

"The scope of the lethality is so vast that, in the annals of crime, it may eventually dwarf all other homicide cases in the United States, combined," they wrote.

And while successful lawsuits against dirty fuel companies would be a monumental win, bringing charges against them won't be easy since it will require clear evidence that the companies' actions directly led to climate-related deaths, as Cindy Cho, a law professor at Indiana University and former Department of Justice prosecutor, told the Guardian

Still, Arkush and Braman believe there's a solid case to be made that oil giants knew the dangers inherent in the industry and should be held responsible for the consequences. 

"Under a plain reading of the law in jurisdictions across the United States, they are committing mass homicide," they wrote. "Prosecutors should act accordingly."

What's being done about it?

According to Grist, Public Citizen has been promoting its legal theory at several prestigious law schools such as Yale, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Guardian reported that several prosecutors and public officials seem interested in learning more about the research and taking legal action against oil firms.

Climate lawsuits are on the rise, with citizens from Switzerland to Alaska suing their federal and state governments for continuing to allow dangerous heat-trapping gases to be released.

A group of young activists won a landmark case in Montana last year when a judge ruled that the state's failure to consider the environmental impacts of oil and gas development was unconstitutional, per NPR

In addition, the Biden administration has been making significant strides to decarbonize the U.S. energy sector, such as recently allocating $7 billion in grants to create nationwide hydrogen hubs and introducing a solar program to bring affordable power to disadvantaged communities. 

These efforts, along with holding polluting industries accountable for their actions, will help ensure a healthy, clean environment for generations to come. 

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