Schwarzenegger: Oil companies are guilty of first-degree murder so I'm suing

Yesterday Arnold Schwarzenegger did a live taping of Politico’s “Off-Message” podcast at the SXSW festival. During the interview, Schwarzenegger announced plans to bring a lawsuit against big oil companies for first-degree murder…or something.

“This is no different from the smoking issue. The tobacco industry knew for years and years and years and decades, that smoking would kill people, would harm people and create cancer, and were hiding that fact from the people and denied it. Then eventually they were taken to court and had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars because of that,” Schwarzenegger said. “The oil companies knew from 1959 on, they did their own study that there would be global warming happening because of fossil fuels, and on top of it that it would be risky for people’s lives, that it would kill.”…

Schwarzenegger said he’s still working on a timeline for filing, but the news comes as he prepares to help host a major environmental conference in May in Vienna.

“We’re going to go after them, and we’re going to be in there like an Alabama tick. Because to me it’s absolutely irresponsible to know that your product is killing people and not have a warning label on it, like tobacco,” he said. “Every gas station on it, every car should have a warning label on it, every product that has fossil fuels should have a warning label on it.”

He argues that at the very least, this would raise awareness about fossil fuels and encourage people to look to alternative fuels and clean cars.

He added, “I don’t think there’s any difference: If you walk into a room and you know you’re going to kill someone, it’s first degree murder; I think it’s the same thing with the oil companies.”

There’s a pretty direct correlation between tobacco use and diseases that adversely impact the health of millions of people around the world. According to the CDC, tobacco-related diseases kill about 6 million people a year worldwide.

Some attempts have been made to estimate the number of deaths caused by climate change but the connection is always less direct. In 2015, the New Republic published this story looking at deaths connected to climate change.

Twenty governments commissioned an independent report in 2012 from the group DARA International to study the human and economic costs of climate change. It linked 400,000 deaths worldwide to climate change each year, projecting deaths to increase to over 600,000 per year by 2030. When scientists attribute deaths to climate change, they don’t just mean succumbing to a heat wave or, as Huckabee put it, to sunburn. Heat waves kill many, to be sure, but global warming also devastates food security, nutrition, and water safety. Since mosquitoes and other pests thrive in hot, humid weather, scientists expect diseases like malaria and dengue fever to rise. Floods threaten to contaminate drinking water with bacteria and pollution.

When the report looked at the added health consequences from burning fossil fuels—aside from climate change—the number of deaths jumps from 400,000 to almost 5 million per year. Carbon-intensive economies see deaths linked to outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke from poor ventilation, occupational hazards, and skin cancer.

So this estimate of deaths linked to climate change is a factor of ten lower than the deaths connected to smoking. Also, the connection is far less direct, e.g. higher temperatures lead to the spread of more mosquito-borne diseases like malaria. Even if we agree that is happening, there are other ways to attempt to remediate that problem.

As for the “carbon-intensive economies” mentioned in that second paragraph, what that actually means (in that particular report) is that people die early from exposure to large amounts of indoor smoke from cooking and heating fires. What these people need to get away from that indoor smoke is either a) an electrical grid or b) clean-burning natural gas. Either way, the solution to the majority of these deaths isn’t fewer fossil fuels but more fossil fuels (with the addition of renewable energy where practical). If oil companies were all convicted of mass murder and thrown in jail tomorrow, the result would be millions of more people who are forced to cook and heat with wood and charcoal fires.

And that’s the other part of this issue which Schwarzenegger misses. There are tremendous benefits to people around the world from our fossil fuel economy. In college, I had a chemistry professor who said ‘you take this black sludgy stuff out of the ground and turn it into the Sears catalog.’ That’s an exaggeration of course (and Sears isn’t what it once was) but he’s fundamentally right. All of our technology and capacity to produce everything we’ve come to rely on in the modern world is the result of access to relatively cheap energy. Cut off fossil fuels and we don’t have the energy to produce a Mercedes G-Wagon much less the ability to charge a 500 hp electric truck in your garage:

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