“What leading figure in human history has dedicated policy toward maximizing the use of fossil fuels and cutting down on regulations that mitigate the disaster? Name one.” Noam Chomsky.
There has been much debate whether the Senate should impeach Donald Trump for inciting the sedition that sacked the Capitol and killed five people. This follows endless deliberation whether Trump should be charged for his corrupt activity during his time in the White House. But both forms of prosecution miss the most egregious crime committed by Donald Trump: murder.
The New York Times recently published a piece on the cover of its magazine positing that “Individual One’s” entire life has been criminal, from business to politics to the Presidency. And that his career as a crime boss has been uninterrupted: from Trump University to obstructing justice around campaign finance misdeeds, to extorting Ukraine for dirt on Joe Biden because Trump saw, correctly, that Biden could beat him “like a drum.” And finally, the pressuring of election officials in Georgia to “find” enough votes to steal the election before exhorting his zombie cult to stop the certification by force.
Whether the Senate convicts Trump in his impeachment trial (unlikely) or the feds charge him for criminal behavior during his presidency (also unlikely), the Southern District Court in New York will most likely charge him for financial felonies before he was president. But if they charge Trump for crimes against property, then why not for crimes against persons? A lot of persons, via his actions in two arenas: COVID-19 and the environment. (I will set aside the five deaths produced during Trump’s ghoulish “insurrection” that reminded me, in its celebratory combination of ignorance and evil of the crowds that posed for photographs with lynched black men hanging from trees in the background).
There is precedence to charge Trump for his COVID-19 malfeasance. In 1992, Alberto Gonzalez was convicted of attempted murder after intentionally giving AIDS to a 17-year-old girl through unprotected sex. He was sentenced to 9 ½ years in prison. Similarly, in 2009, a Canadian man who recklessly transmitted HIV to seven women, two of whom subsequently died, made legal history by becoming the first person ever convicted of first-degree murder for sexual HIV transmission. He is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 25 years. Well… hasn’t Trump been having the equivalent of unprotected sex with the country via COVID-19 this past year (while committing rape of the environment via his relentless policies for the past four years)?
In October 2020, as the resurging plague gripped America, Trump held superspreader events that infected thousands of people. In the White House alone there were more COVID-19 cases than in Taiwan, New Zealand, and Vietnam combined. And now that we’ve finally pried Trump from the Oval Office like an oyster from its shell, he will probably hit the road in some combination of a go-fund-me con and a Grateful Dead tour for endlessly gullible Trumpheads (he’s already bilked them out of over 250 million dollars raised for his “legal fees”). This despite a new study by Stanford University economists that show Trump’s campaign rallies between June and September caused 30,000 coronavirus infections and over 700 deaths. Trump ridiculed wearing a mask while conducting these die-ins, turning basic medical prevention into political red meat.
How does Trump’s behavior differ from intentionally infecting somebody with HIV or any other potentially lethal disease? It doesn’t except for one: Trump’s actions are on a completely different scale, that of a mass murderer. As a society, we put people in jail as punishment, but also to prevent them from hurting more citizens; we locked up Ted Bundy as penance and to keep society safe. So, why shouldn’t we prosecute Trump for the people he’s killed and also prevent future superspreader events before the vaccine kicks in?
James Fallows writes in the Atlantic that Trump’s behavior is negligent homicide, causing thousands of deaths because the president didn’t “exercise reasonable care” in his response to COVID-19. But Trump’s homicidal behavior of infecting people with COVID-19, not to mention his stochastic murder by promoting reckless behavior that infects hundreds of thousands more, wasn’t negligent, it was intentional. In common law, an unlawful homicide committed recklessly would ordinarily constitute the crime of voluntary manslaughter. But one committed with “extreme” or “gross” recklessness as to human life would make it murder. This is defined as “depraved heart” or “abandoned and malignant heart” or “depraved indifference” murder. Are there any phrases that better capture Trump’s core state of being?
But even these murders are just the tip of the melting iceberg of Trump’s death cult. Because the downstream mortality of his environmental policies have already, and will in the future, kill way more people than his superspreader adulations (where at least people have a choice whether to risk their lives groveling, without a mask, at the show). There is no such choice with his environmental policies—all of humanity is Trump’s victim. This is why Noam Chomsky recently called Trump, in an interview in the New Yorker “the worst criminal in human history.” In the interview, Chomsky said not even Stalin or Hitler, who, while monstrously homicidal in pursuing power, were “trying to destroy human life on earth.”
What leading figure in human history has dedicated policy toward maximizing the use of fossil fuels and cutting down on regulations that mitigate the disaster? Name one.” Noam Chomsky challenged in his interview. His question isn’t an example of utilizing “creative hyperbole,” as Trump likes to call his waterfall of lies. There’s a straightforward case for branding Trump as the worst criminal in human history because, like his COVID-19 homicides, Trump’s climate murders aren’t negligent, they result from premeditated and depraved indifference to life. And while the infections caused by his superspreader events and constant disinformation about COVID-19 will dissipate as we conquer the pandemic, we are in the incubation period for what he’s done to the environment. We don’t yet know how much his malignant actions over the past four years have spiked the planet’s temperature and cemented our present course, which is still, despite all our efforts, easily on target to reach four degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. This is an apocalypse that will strain humanity’s ability to survive as a species.
Looking back at all Trump has done to earn Chomsky’s title of the worst man who ever lived, it’s ironic in 2017 there was a much-bandied quote that Trump’s “malevolence was tempered by his incompetence.” This glib meme caused alarm amongst environmentalists because the people Trump appointed to dismantle the EPA, the Department of the Interior, and every other oversight that protects the planet weren’t the amateur clowns he assigned to other institutions. They were insiders and oil lobbyists who knew exactly where the pressure points were. And the last four years of Trump (on top of 40 years of Republican money-motivated denialism) has hammered the nail in our coffin.
We are behind the eight ball looking at the corner pocket of extinction because scientists, who depend on consensus, have consistently underestimated the rapidity of the climate crisis. Sea level rise has doubled the 2013 forecasts. The International Panel on Climate Change undershot the Arctic ice melt, which has tripled their predictions. Our oceans capture 93% of the CO2 but are reaching saturation and warming 40% faster than forecast. The IPCC finally admitted our “threshold for irreversibility” is a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (down from 2 degrees). But 1.5 C is already baked in; just our committed carbon (aging out machinery, released CO2 that hasn’t yet hit the atmosphere, etc.) will get us there. So, in even the best-case scenario, we will blow past 2% Celsius into the realm of constant disaster.
Only a few scientists are talking about this, but humanity might not make it to the end of the century. It’s worth remembering 75% of the carbon that hits the atmosphere lasts thousands of years. The other 25% lasts forever. The damage we’ve done in a few decades—in the last 30 years we’ve emitted more CO2 than all the previous years combined—will last longer than the entire history of human civilization. We have never lived on the planet when CO2 levels are this high or Earth was this hot—our total emissions are at 415 ppm of CO2, up 1.5% every year for the past decade. For an idea of how bad that is, the environmental group 350.org was so named because 350 ppm was the safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point. And so now the IPCC says we must lower emissions by 7.6% a year between 2020 and 2030 to avoid disaster. What are the odds of that after Trump has squandered the first four years running up to this crucial decade?
We are so far in the hole that an increasing number of scientists are concerned about passing abrupt and irreversible tipping points taking us to “hothouse earth.”
We are so far in the hole that an increasing number of scientists are concerned about passing abrupt and irreversible tipping points taking us to “hothouse earth.” This is when our planet’s systems switch from neutral to harmful, creating feedback loops that spew more CO2 than all human activity combined no matter what we do. Scientists call out-of-control feedback loops extinction-level events where most life on Earth will end. They include the melting sea ice that might permanently disappear in four years; and the thawing permafrost (and oceanic methane “burps”) that are releasing a gas that’s 84 times worse than CO2 in creating the greenhouse effect; and wildfires from Australia to Canada. As we congratulate ourselves on our electric cars, the 2019 wildfires in California spewed nine times more CO2 into the atmosphere than got removed through California’s clean energy programs. Wildfires now cause half of all pollution in the Western states (25% in all of America), an example of hothouse earth if there ever was one.
The planet is unraveling and we are full-speed in reverse, driven the past four years by the abusive drunk at the wheel who last year cut all regulation on big oil’s methane leaks and intentional flaring, even as those leaks are worsening. This will hasten Earth’s methane off-gassing that will dwarf what we generate. Nobody talks about what happens when Earth goes from friend to mortal enemy—as out of control as a viral infection. We’re all in denial about the upcoming mass death and the wars of all against all, fighting over food and water and the billions migrating to chase both. Even a terrific NY Times piece about the geopolitical effects of climate change, focusing on Russia’s rise because it can now farm former permafrost, doesn’t mention that 25% of the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost where 1.8 trillion tons of methane lives. It too is melting faster than scientists predicted. And unlike CO2, which takes years to hit the atmosphere, methane is instantaneous—a bullet to the brain versus cancer.
But the CO2 we’re spewing is enough by itself to suffocate humanity. And Trump was adept at creating billions of extra tons of CO2 emissions—12 times more just from coal plants—by repealing the Clean Power Plan regulating CO2 from smokestacks. Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE), which focused on retrofitting existing coal plants, replaced the CPP. So Trump doubled down on typewriters in the age of smartphones. The repeal of CPP will increase CO2 emissions by over 500 million metric tons by 2030. It will also result in 120,000 premature deaths. While obviously not solely responsible for our climate emergency, throughout his presidency, Trump regularly green-lit mass murder as a warm-up for extinction.
And a lot of excess misery. The World Health Organization reports that 90% of humanity is already choking on dangerous levels of pollutants, inhaling fine particle poisons, chemicals, and mercury that create asthma and disease, shortening life expectancy. This comes from externalizing and subsidizing the pollution created by our addiction to oil. As a result, half a billion Chinese lose five years off their lives because of air pollution. They’re the lucky ones: worldwide, every year, 7 million people die from air pollution. COVID-19 made this worse, a confluence of Trump’s stochastic murder in two categories. Trump didn’t care. For the 2016 election, Big Coal gave 97% and Big Oil gave 88% of their donations to Republicans. So Trump and his Republican enablers got paid to gain power. This despite having lived on the planet when it was arguably the best time to be alive. But Trump and his cult of old senate bloodsuckers won’t stop slurping the marrow from the planet and picking their teeth with our bones. These cronies have already enjoyed Earth’s abundance—oceans full of fish cut in half since 1970—and are lucky dead by the time the coming wave crashes. A natural death for the screw-you-I’ve-got-mine crowd rationalizing that if they don’t “get theirs” somebody else will. Trump is the avatar of this consumptive and extractive way of being on the planet, cheerleading his clueless lemmings right off the climate cliff.
Meanwhile, Gen-Z inherits the sixth extinction, where a species blinks out every 20 minutes, twenty-six thousand a year. Born into a rapidly denuded world—humankind has also wiped out 60% of all animals since 1970—young people will experience the full force of dust bowl breadbaskets, forests burning to ash, and seas and storms drowning the coasts. They grew up watching Trump sell irreversible drilling and mining rights to our wild spaces in dead-ender carbon strategies. They’ve heard the planet’s dog whistle become a foghorn as we pass tipping points every day and accelerate feedback loops sooner than predicted. Nobody has to convince these young people to “believe” the world is melting; they know it’s not a religion. They can pick up ancient Pliocene seashells 200 feet above current sea level. This is the map of where Earth was when it had the same CO2 levels as right now: a water world with alligators in the Arctic and seas up to the elbow of the Statue of Liberty. And nobody tells Gen-Z that to survive we will need to create and scale-up massive carbon capture technology that nobody’s imagined, never mind invented (Elon Musk, aware of how dire the situation is, just created a 100 million dollar prize for the person who can crack it). This was yet another opportunity Trump wasted by cutting basic research and even scientific reporting on the climate chaos most people can see just by looking out the window. Our grandchildren will look back at us with contempt and incredulity for electing a criminal like Trump, who purposefully accelerated this inflection point every week of his presidency.
The sum of Trump’s actions and inactions is impossible to calculate; how do you contact trace every death Trump has caused by his environmental and COVID-19 policies?
The sum of Trump’s actions and inactions is impossible to calculate; how do you contact trace every death Trump has caused by his environmental and COVID-19 policies (and personal behavior)? This is why they are stochastic—statistically probable, but whose specifics can’t be predicted. But there is no doubt his actions have already killed tens of thousands of people. Not negligent homicide, but intentionally pre-meditated mass murder, with possibly millions more yet to be counted as we reap the whirlwind of his environmental vandalism.
So, sure, the election got drunk Trump off the road and took his keys, if he hasn’t launched a simmering insurgency that lasts his remaining time on the planet. And yes, we avoided four more years of Trump that, according to Bill McKibben, humans would have been able to see 30,000 years in the future, if there are any humans left. (McKibben called this the “Trumpicene” after the Anthropocene we are already in—a planet-changing epoch created by humans). And yes, Biden will continue to reverse many of Trump’s executive orders that repealed truckloads of environmental regulations, including our participation in the anemic Paris Accord. But just because we dodged the bullet of four more years of Trump, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t punish him for his crimes against humanity. We must also prevent further stochastic murder via his death grip on the Republican Party settling in for four years of obstruction. We must prosecute Trump to apply moral hazard to this cult of nearly dead white men and newcomers like Josh Hawley, who now aspire for the title of worst man in the world. Because a Biden presidency opposed by half a Trumpian Senate will cement much of what Trump did and waste another four years of this critical decade. It will irretrievably lock us into the slow-motion climate disaster in which we already live. America must immediately reverse course and, with the zealotry of a former drunk, awaken the world out of their stupor that the Paris Accord is enough. It isn’t.
Nobody has punished the Republicans for enabling Trump’s outrages, but we must surely stop them from allowing Trump to run a shadow government that controls these toadying senators via his suicidal base. Trump has been deposed, but he must be jailed to ensure this is the beginning of the end instead of the end of the beginning for this illiberal movement (where 70% of Republicans still believe the election was stolen, and 147 Republican House members voted against certifying the vote). Many, in the pockets of big oil, are climate change deniers.
Enough. Humankind can’t afford to lose another day if we hope to stop our glide to disaster. We must react as we did after being bombed into WW2 by the Japanese. We need to wake up like when we converted our entire economy within two years to kill Hitler. We made no cars; just tanks, jeeps, and 300,000 bombers—one plane every hour—and three huge Liberty ships a day built by our own Rosie the Riveters. Bonus if we do it? The green economy will provide work for every engineer, scientist, machinist, construction worker, and plumber—every person who knows how to build stuff with their hands. We can and must do this to save both our planet and our society. If Americans can pull together and quickly adapt for war, then why not for life?
The Declaration of Independence posits: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or to abolish it … to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Echoing Chomsky, nothing affects our safety and happiness as much as an unraveling planet, brought on by the greed of Trump and his bought-and-sold Trumpian Senate. They, and the donor class that supports them, need to see consequences. Otherwise, this sclerotic gerontocracy will take us with them to the afterlife. Prosecuting Trump, the pestilence half the country inflicted on the other half, will also act as a warning to the next strongman who will easily have more discipline, energy, and intelligence than Trump. Trying Trump for crimes against humanity and removing him from society will loosen his grip, and hopefully the unprecedented power the presidency has gathered over the years.
Maybe Trump ends up like Robert DeNiro’s Raging Bull, a performing sad sack playing to smaller and smaller crowds in the Mar-a-Lago dining room. But right now he still has control over the Republican Party and will continue to even when not the president (Trump 2024!). While the damage of Trump infecting people with COVID-19 diminishes as he holes up licking his sore loser wounds, his environmental policies will kill people in slow motion for decades. So, we shouldn’t simply impeach Trump and glancingly indict him for tax crimes like Al Capone. We need to convict him for his murderous actions and policies. Climate criminals must pay for their crimes.
If we don’t hold Trump to account, a Republican Senate will put Biden’s presidency into a forced coma (they can do it despite Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote). Trump’s ex parte control will further erode our democracy, which barely made it through his stress test. Nothing will get done to save the lives of our children who will reap Trump’s whirlwind.
We can’t let that happen. The debate is over. We are out of time and drastic action is our only option. Our survival depends on the decisions we make now and how quickly we move. Prosecuting Trump for his murderous crimes is preventative, is just, and is a warning to those who choose power and money over the health of the planet and its people.
Arthur Jeon has published two nonfiction books with Random House and recently published Snowflake, a climate thriller. He co-founded Global Animal.