Book review: Unprecedented Crime …

17 Oct
this post also features in offguardian

The unprecedented crime Peter Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth refer to is that of willfully allowing global temperatures to rise, through greenhouse gas emissions, to levels already causing large-scale loss of life while threatening human survival and that of countless other species. They might with equal accuracy speak of crimes, plural, when those who from positions of authority either actively aid key offenders or, by failing to hold them to account, betray the trust placed in them.

This is the unique selling point of Unprecedented Crime:  a closely argued insist­en­ce that, under existing laws and without recourse to new ones framed specifically to outlaw ecocide, we could indict those corporate and governmental bodies it identifies, without hyperbole, as answerable for crimes against humanity.

Think about it. Ninety-seven percent of scientists in relevant disciplines are telling us climate change is real, is man-made and is taking us all, meaning humanity and other advanced life forms, down a roller coaster of environmental catastrophe. Not in some distant sci-fi dystopia but on a timescale measured in decades, years even. Given this, the scale and extent of denial – literal in the case of ‘sceptics’ in the pay of Fossil Fuels Inc; de facto in that of governmental cowardice and venality – are staggering. Why then, with the stakes so high, would we not view the perpetrators as culpable of crimes whose magnitude has no historic equivalent, not even in our darkest moments?

This is the premise of Carter and Woodworth’s case. Like any good scientist, they start with the observable phenomena, as indicated by their opening chapter: Extreme Weather Around the World. From here they proceed, again as scientists do, to set out in Chapter Two the underlying drivers; a heightening of earth’s natural and life-optimal greenhouse effect, to unnatural and decidedly sub-optimal levels, noting along the way a 1990 assertion by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that as a matter of certainty:

Emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These increases will enhance the green-house effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface temperature.

But that second chapter does more than set out the science. It locates the birth of a small and decidedly non-scientific cabal, of pretty much the most powerful vested interests on the planet – aka the fossil fuels industry and its financiers – and charts their success in casting doubt on that IPCC certainty:

In 2010 a landmark book, Merchants of Doubt, showed how a small group of prominent scientists with connections to politics and industry led disinformation campaigns denying established scientific knowledge about smoking, acid rain, DDT, the ozone layer, and global warming.

Written by Dr. Naomi Oreskes, Harvard science historian, and NASA historian Erik Conway, Merchants was reviewed by Bill Buchanan of The Christian Science Monitor as “the most important book of 2010,” and by The Guardian’s Robin McKie as “the best science book of the year.” It was followed by the 2014 documentary of the same name, also widely seen and reviewed.

The research showed how the disinformation tactics of the tobacco companies in the 1960s to undermine the scientific link between smoking and lung cancer served as a model for subsequent oil company tactics suppressing climate change science.

Following the U.S. Surgeon General’s landmark report on smoking and lung cancer in 1964, the government legislated warning labels on cigarette packages. But a tobacco company executive from Brown & Williamson had a brainwave: people still wanted to smoke and doubt about the science would give them a ready excuse.

His infamous 1969 memo read: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

Here’s the thing. People exercised by a terrifying possibility, whose avoidance or mitigation will necessitate – or can be portrayed as necessitating – inconvenience and pain, will be receptive to the counter-view that it’s all hogwash, or at the very least that the doomsayers are laying it on with a trowel. So eagerly receptive, in fact, they won’t look closely at the motives of those advancing such a counter-view. Nuff said, save that Unprecedented Crime’s  search beam on dirty tricks and systematic strong-arming – its attendant corruption of body politic and informed debate a crime in itself – does not make for the most relaxing of bedtime reading.


Three subsequent chapters make the case against an unholy trinity whose crimes of omission and commission would place them in the dock, under existing laws, in a saner and less mendacious world. The headers speak for themselves: State Crime Against the Global Public Trust … Media Collusion (a chapter of particular interest in light of the recently published Media Lens book on media corruption by market forces) … Corporate and Bank Crime …

Chapter 6 discusses Moral Collapse and Religious Apathy.  Well well. Search in vain for a “thou shalt not trash Planet Earth” message in Quran, Veda or Bible, but these and other revered texts from our pre-industrial past have much to say on injustice. The meek, you see, are not to inherit the earth after all. Rather, the world’s poorest – their own carbon footprints negligible – find themselves at the front line of climatic catastrophes already underway as a result of corporate greed in the Global North. Here’s a snippet from the early pages of John Smith’s Imperialism in the Twenty-first Century,  reviewed here, on this aspect of the matter. Having opened with the collapse of an eight-storey textile factory in Dhaka, killing 1133 workers, Smith goes on to say:

Starvation wages, death-trap factories and fetid slums in Bangladesh typify conditions for hundreds of millions of workers in the Global South, source of surplus value sustaining profits and unsustainable overconsumption in imperialist countries. Bangladesh is also in the front line of another consequence of capitalism’s reckless exploitation of living labor and nature: “climate change”, more accurately described as capitalist destruction of nature. Most of Bangladesh is low-lying. As sea levels rise and monsoons become more energetic, farmland is inundated with salt water, accelerating migration into the cities …

I’ve a reason for citing this. Part Two of Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers For Survival  moves from naming the guilty to setting out what is to be done. In doing so the authors introduce the only note I take issue with in the entire book. Chapter 10, on Market Leadership, opens with this:

Much has been written about the constraining effects of capitalism, globalization, and the debt-based economy on a clean energy transition, saying that we must begin by addressing these root issues.

Although these structural impediments may be slowing the potential pace of renewable energy growth, the climate emergency allows us no time to fix the economic system first.

For reasons I go into elsewhere – here for instance, and here – I shudder at such strawman argument. Few on the left say “fix capitalism then  climate change” but many, me included, see scant prospect of stopping or even slowing this and other effects of capitalism’s destruction of nature  without taking on what the authors rightly refer to in the above extract as “root issues”.

The two fights are one and the same. The underlying cause of climate change is capitalism’s inbuilt addiction to growth: its constant and tyrannical drive to create ever more stuff for us to buy; its demand – no less imperious for that sly obeisance before the God of Choice – that we continually cast out the old to make room for the new and, by this and this alone, breathe life into falling profits in an endless cycle of boom and bust. Moreover, there’s only one irrefutable reply to the mantra that measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions are – like measures to rein in the lucrative arms-for-profit industries – “anti-job”. That is to push back at such slick, circular ‘reasoning’ by placing wealth creation for human need, not private profit, firmly on the table.

So say I. But where does this leave such as me? Do we withdraw in a sulk from collaboration with those who see things otherwise while sharing our horror at the criminal insanity unfolding before our eyes? Hardly. Climate breakdown, this book reminds us, leaves no room for any such sectarianism. Red and Green must find common cause. To that end we should differentiate two approaches to collaboration: on the one hand rainbow alliances whose shaky, lowest common denominator foundat­ions require dilution upon dilution of principle, only to implode at the first real test of solidarity; on the other hand working alliances, united fronts, in which no dilution of principle is called for. Just shared recognition of a common goal, and a willingness to engage with all who are prepared to work toward it.

To that end, Unprecedented Crime  offers a resounding rallying call. It sets out with admirable clarity the nature and extent of the problem, offering a novel but logical way of viewing that problem with the urgency necessary for confronting it with adequate resolve. It lays out the basis for a program of concrete demands in the here and now: demands around which an opposition movement can coalesce, demands with which to win over the undecided as well as those who have given up on hope and, not least, demands with which to oppose both the lies of the denialists and the delusions of those who still believe time is on our side.

* * *

Unprecedented Crime – Climate Science Denial and Game Changers For Survival can be ordered here: or in England from Amazon. It has a Foreword by Dr. James Hansen: former NASA climate scientist and the man who blew the whistle on climate change thirty years ago.

Dr. Peter Carter is an IPCC expert reviewer. Elizabeth Woodworth is also a co-author of  9/11 Unmasked, reviewed here.

8 Replies to “Book review: Unprecedented Crime …

  1. You say the Bible doesn’t say ‘don’t trash the earth’. You’ve been fed another lie. Rev 11.18: “The time has come… to destroy those who destroy the earth”.

  2. Sadly, even though I agree with you, there are as many on the left who recognize the destructive nature of capitalism but see man made climate change as a myth, presumably promulgated by those who do not want profit before people. Lord but their thinking is vacuous.
    I’ll reblog this one and hope someone else picks it up and runs with it.

    • OffGuardian are to run this, Susan, and they warn that there’ll be criticism below the line. I won’t respond unless very well evidenced reasoning is provided to explain why I should ignore both an overwhelming consensus within the most relevant sciences, and the fact climate denialism is so extraordinarily well funded by big capital interests.

  3. Philip,
    I wondered if you would care to share here your opinions of how the editors/ writers/ moderators at OffG have interacted with the 346 (at time of writing) comments below your book review on their site?

    As will be clear to anyone reading the comments, it has dismayed me to read many interjections from them that, I think, boost the very same false doubt arguments about the science of AGW that ‘Unprecedented Crime’ seeks to expose. By taking an absolutist stance of ‘hearing all sides, being open to debate’ when there really is only one side of ‘debate’ in the scientific literature, effectively supports the denialist side. It is a tactic used by the most nefarious subjects of OffG’s criticism over the years, yet they seem quite willing to employ those arguments on this issue. For them it is fine to call out Bellingcat’s compromised funding or that of the White Helmets, but to link to research into the funding networks of AGW deniers is somehow equated with the propornot propaganda mission. (So, false equivalence to add to false dichotomy).
    BigB and myself (and others) tried to point out what we saw going on, with links to substantiate our arguments, but received only repeated ‘corporate’ responses or were just plain ignored.

    I think this approach has undermined the credibility of the website – something that I find upsetting.

    What do you think ?

    • Hi Mog. I didn’t realise just how many OffGuardian comments my review had drawn, and had to see for myself that it really has hit 346 ATOW. I’m in the midst of a house move and employment tribunal case so this isn’t a good time for me to wade in. I was appreciative, when I checked just now, of your and BigB’s comments; currently near the top (as the most recent). I was also appreciative of Catte’s statements that “I’m a Green. I accept the reality of AGW. I believe in green energy and the desirability of weening ourselves off fossil fuels.” But I also sympathise with the OG editors who, given their raison d’etre, are understandably wary of censoring comment.

      (In fact I’ve written in the past to them expressing disquiet at some comments which in my view cross the line from anti-zionist to antisemitic, to the point where you wonder if Netanyahu and IDF are writing them as false flag ops! I also dislike the way some, including respondents to my more recent piece on Julian Assange, use 9/11 Truthism as an acid test of integrity. It seems not to occur to those people that anyone – including, it seems, Assange – who accepts the 9/11 official narrative might do so because, rightly or wrongly but in any case sincerely, they believe it.)

      It’ll be good if Peter Carter weighs in on AGW, to augment Elizabeth Woodworth’s comments. Added to informed input from such as you and other sober voices, we can but trust that superior argument wins out. In any case, the denialism of a tiny fringe isn’t the problem here. Most people accept AGW is real and a few BTL comments on OG aren’t going to change that! The problem, as you and I know, is not whether people “believe in” AGW. It is that entrenched interests – not just fossil fuels but the entirety of capitalism with its inbuilt and non negotiable dependency on ‘growth’ and an unplanned economy – will continue to risk everything with their reckless exploitation of nature and human labour both.

      I’m not sure I fully address your own concerns, Mog, but it’s the best I can think of right now. I’ve a feeling, however, that I’ll be writing again on this subject.

      • Thanks Philip,

        Yes, I expected quite a response BTL from OffG comment writers who are deeply sceptical of the AGW hypothesis.
        What surprised me was the extent to which the ‘Admin’ writer(s) seemed to intervene in their support by insistently repeating a ‘no cenosorship here’ argument. Nobody was calling for censorship though, just some recognition from ‘Admin’ and ‘Catte’ of the factual arguments of those who bothered to read the science, and an equal demand for substantiation by them from the deniers’ side of the argument.
        I would be interested to read more of your thoughts if you do write again on this subject when time allows.
        ‘Because facts really should be sacred’ (just select facts it seems).

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