When citizens of the Italian town of L’Aquila started noticing that the semi-regular tremors along the fault line on which they lived had started becoming a little more regular and a little more intense, many became nervous about the possibility of a cataclysmic event. Seven seismologists from the Italian civil protection agency evaluated the data and declared that a large quake was “unlikely”. Just a week later, a 6.3 magnitude quake rocked the city center, killing over 300 people and destroying L’Aquila and severely damaging neighboring towns.
Seismologic science is much like any other predictive science. It’s based on data, but predictions can never be 100% accurate. Regardless, a criminal court in Italy convicted the seven scientists to 6 years in prison and ordered them to pay fines amounting to $10 million each. The charges were multiple counts of manslaughter and abetting grave injury for “providing an assessment of the risks that was incomplete, inept, unsuitable, and criminally mistaken”, according to the official sentence.
Put aside, for a moment, whether or not the seismologists could have done their job better in warning the town’s residents. The key takeaway is that the scientists provided an opinion that met with a stark contrary reality, and were punished, severely, for it.
So when 16 scientists signed an Op-Ed in the conservative Wall Street Journal saying that we should not worry about climate change, are those scientists liable for the $50 billion in damages caused by Hurricane Sandy? These scientists were largely funded by the fossil fuel industry (many are not even climate scientists: one’s a physician, one’s a retired airplane designer, one’s a former Republican politician, and one is a retired electrical engineer). Further, the normally conservative International Energy Agency released an estimate that it would take $10 trillion in investment in renewable energy before 2030 to avert catastrophic climate change, and that every year of delay adds an extra $500 billion to that figure. Hidden costs are adding up, and further delay only makes the situation worse. With Fox News and the Wall Street Journal slowing action on climate change with propaganda (by inaccurately reporting climate science 93% and 81% of the time, respectively), could those media outlets also be liable both criminally and civilly?