Those who fund and promote doubts about global warming should be sent to prison, Lawrence Torcello, assistant professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, argued for The Conversation.
"When it comes to global warming, much of the public remains in denial about a set of facts that the majority of scientists clearly agree on. With such high stakes, an organized campaign funding misinformation ought to be considered criminally negligent," he wrote.
Torcello draws a comparison with six Italian scientists who were sentenced to six years in prison after a 2009 earthquake that killed 300. While many believe the scientists were imprisoned for failing to predict the earthquake, they were actually convicted of failing to "clearly communicate risks to the public," he explained. When a public official told residents there was no danger after the tremors started, the scientists did nothing to correct him, Torcello recalled.
Torcello does not believe that the scientists in that case should have been imprisoned, but he does believe there are some cases in which communications about science should be criminalized. If there were a funded and organized campaign to misrepresent the dangers of the earthquake, he argued, those who engaged in the campaign should have been held criminally responsible.
Likewise, Torcello believes there should be criminal penalties for those who are active in funding or receive funding to promote expressions of doubt about the current science regarding global warming.
"We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent. The charge of criminal and moral negligence ought to extend to all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public's understanding of scientific consensus," he wrote.
Concerns about freedom of speech are "misguided," Torcello added, because there is a distinction between expressing an opinion and a funded and organized campaign expressing an opinion. Protecting speech that is funded and organized "stretches the definition of free speech to a degree that undermines the very concept," he wrote.
Global warming skeptics are "not only corrupt and deceitful, but criminally negligent in their willful disregard for human life," he concluded. "It is time for modern societies to interpret and update their legal systems accordingly."
Torcello's article was originally titled "Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?" After Quartz reprinted the article with the title, "It should be criminal to fund climate change denial," Torcello tweeted that the Quartz title "is closer to my originally intended (not published) title."
Torcello describes his research interests as "ethical theory, and applied ethics, social and political philosophy, and scientific skepticism."
The Conversation is not a peer-reviewed academic journal. Rather, it is an edited news source based in England and Australia that only publishes works by academics who agree to a set of community standards. Its subheading reads, "Academic rigor, journalistic flair."