The Guardian’s new series of articles on fossil fuel companies’ culpability for the climate crisis is entitled “Climate Crimes.” Is this too extreme a title?

After all, Exxon and the others were just working within our legal, economic, and political systems to provide a commodity we all use every day. They may have known that global warming posed a risk, but people accept all kinds of risks in exchange for the many benefits of living a relatively affluent life in a modern, industrialized economy. Is it really appropriate to call them criminals—and accordingly, to take them to court all over the world?

I think the answer is yes. It comes down to the scale of the harm; the willful, systematic, and sustained nature of the lying; and the leading role the climate denial movement has played in the sustained assault on democracy that we see today.

I’m no lawyer, so this is not a legal judgment on my part. In fact, because the scale of the crime is so great, it seems to me that, notwithstanding a glimmer of hope here or there, the legal system so far seems ill-equipped to grasp it.

But the moral case, at least, is clear.

We know now that fossil fuel company researchers understood early on, from their own work as well as that of academic and government researchers, that warming due to human emissions of greenhouse gases posed risks at the planetary scale.

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