Impact Assessment: Self-Inflicted Genocide and the Toronto Principle

In the beginning of November I got an email from a student at the University of Pennsylvania that said the following:

My name is Richard Ling, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the Fossil Free Penn organization, and our university recently rejected our club’s proposal for fossil fuel divestment. Reason being that the Trustees did not consider fossil fuel investment as a “moral evil” comparable in severity to “genocide or apartheid.” However, in doing some research, I stumbled upon some of your articles (here is the link to the article I read:, in which you claim that climate change is comparable to the Holocaust in severity. We at Fossil Free Penn were immediately compelled by this argument, and we agree with you wholeheartedly.

Thus, Fossil Free Penn was wondering if you would be willing to assist us in our fight for divestment against our Trustees. Specifically, our group was wondering if you would be willing to write a small letter addressing the “moral evil” argument, and/or join us in a phone/Skype call to know more about your personal thoughts. Simple things, but nonetheless invaluable to our efforts.

Our club has worked for the past couple of years for this cause; you may read our proposal for divestment here:

Here was my response:

Thank you Richard for your email.

I am sorry to disappoint you but I will not be able to assist you in your campaign for disinvestment by writing a “small letter” addressing the “moral evil” aspect by invoking my Holocaust experience and my recent writing. The simple reason is that I don’t view the oil companies as “evil” and certainly not evil on the level of the Nazi government in the 1930 – 1945 period. The oil companies are businesses that want to maximize their profit. They view the required energy transition that we have to face as a threat to their profit and they want to minimize that threat. Some of the steps that they are taking such as support of the Heartland Institute and other deniers are probably against the law and are presently under litigation and some of their activities such as accounting as capital oil in the ground are perpetuated by bad regulations. To me none of these activities come close to the institutional horrors that constituted the Holocaust.  The citation that you use was not targeted against any specific institution. It was targeted mainly to the voting and educational public to try to influence political and educational activities toward minimizing future collective threats such as climate change.

I would be delighted to come to your school, give a talk and chat with everybody willing to discuss these important issues.


Richard was a good sport about my negative response to his request and invited me to give a talk; I did so on Thursday, December 1st.

There is a widespread strategy of divesting from fossil fuel companies to deter their continual promotion of organized climate change denial. Benjamin A. Franta’s piece in the Harvard Crimson urges the world-famous institution to take this approach:

Last December, a committee at the University of Toronto released a report on the issue of divestment, drawing a clear line by aligning itself with the needs of the Paris agreement. It recommended that the university not finance companies whose “actions blatantly disregard the international effort to limit the rise in average global temperatures to not more than one and a half degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages by 2050…These are fossil fuels companies whose actions are irreconcilable with achieving internationally agreed goals.” This principle, basic as it is, aligns rhetoric and action. It suggests that it is all institutions’ responsibility to give life to the Paris agreement. Harvard could adopt this Toronto principle, too, and the world would be better for it.

In practice, adopting the Toronto Principle would likely mean moving investments away from coal companies and coal-fired power plants, companies seeking non-conventional or aggressive fossil fuel development (such as oil from the Arctic or tar sands), and possibly also companies that distort public policies or deceive the public on climate. At present, these activities are incompatible with the agreement in Paris.

I wrote a blog on this issue (July 17, 2013), which was picked up by a number of publications. In the instance shown below, while I am listed as the author, the introductory paragraph is not mine but given that it includes an open link to my blog, it will do:

Unburnable Fuels: Removing Reserves From The Balance Sheet

By Micha Tomkiewicz

The notion advanced in this article, that fossil fuel companies might be significantly overvalued, has the ring of truth while also having enormous strategic potential. Quantitative analysis shows clearly that most recoverable fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground if we are to hold climate disruption to tolerable levels. This cannot help but impact the value of all fossil fuel related assets, from oil fields to coal mines, from oil tankers to refineries, and from coal fired power plants to coal fired cement kilns. Changes in accounting standards to reflect these lowered values could put pressure on stock prices, and this suggests that calling for such accounting changes would be a natural complement to the divestiture movement. While that would put a chink in the value of many investor portfolios, it would in the longer run create a more honest market in the stocks of fossil fuel related companies and in so doing would help investors make better decisions to protect themselves from downside risks. That makes this, as an argument and as a push for accounting standards change, a natural ally of the push for divestment.

It is obvious that I don’t object to divestment from fossil energy companies but this position has nothing to do with the Nazi atrocities that were responsible for the murder of most of my family. As I said at my Philadelphia talk:

Climate change as it stands now is not a genocide, not a crime against humanity, and not evil. It has the prospect to become all three. You don’t punish a prospect; you try to change it (Holocaust Remembrance Day).

I am also familiar with the now infamous Godwin’s Law about invoking Nazi history to describe everything that we might not like:

Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies)[1][2] is an Internet adage asserting that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1[2][3]—​​that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.

Richard’s request forced me to take another look at my claim that by the end of this century the impact of climate change would amount to “self-inflicted genocide.” I decided to see whether such an association didn’t need some narrowing. Reading Philippe Sands’ new book, East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity helped me with this reassessment. The word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin and used in the 3rd indictment of the Nuremberg Trials. The definition used in the trial was: “Extermination of racial and religious groups, against the civilian populations of certain occupied territories in order to destroy particular races and classes of people and national, racial, or religious groups, particular Jews, Poles, Gypsies and others.” From Sands’ book I also learned that Lemkin’s best friend in Poland was my great uncle. I suddenly started to feel even more personal pressure to specify my use of the term in a context that I am almost sure Lemkin would not have agreed with.

My main purpose in using the term was to try to establish a clear marker of direction. The example that I gave was the Paris Metro, where each train line is identified by its end point. There is (I hope) a universal agreement that genocide is an utmost evil that must be avoided or dismantled via our collective international resolve. In this sense, my use is fully consistent with the UN use of the term and with the original Lemkin intention. The main indicator that I am making some impact in the right direction is that almost five years after I coined the application of the term on this blog it continues to be a focus of discussion – case in point: my talk in Philadelphia.

My next blog, which will be posted after the New Year, will shift its attention from the seemingly ineffectual top-down efforts toward change to bottom-up efforts that appear to be mushrooming. Rex Tillerson, the head of Exxon Mobil for the last few years – and the recently appointed Secretary of State – has been at the forefront of climate change deniers. Notwithstanding, this push from lower levels to take climate change into account and stop actively financing denial is also apparent within fossil fuel companies. Indeed, shakeups within some of the big oil companies, as documented in Bloomberg’s “Big Oil to Invest $1 Billion in Carbon-Capture Technology” and the NYT’s “Exxon against the Rockefellers,” are becoming more common.

As I wrote before, I share the view that 80% of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground and; they absolutely should not be burned unless an effective technology is developed to capture the greenhouse gases. Methods to achieve this objective include:

  • Boycotting
  • Exercising influence on fossil fuel companies through shareholder activism
  • Regulating through policy change
  • Reducing fossil fuel profitability through reduced demand (carbon tax, cap and trade and/or public education)
  • Expediting the technological development of alternatives

As always, I welcome your input as to other approaches. Happy holidays, everyone, and have a wonderful New Year!

Assessment: Since the beginning of October, on Twitter, I’m up to 375 followers. I also had 6 mentions, 5 retweets, and 11.3K tweet impressions. On Facebook, in the same time period, my page is up to 135 “likes” and 4,520 impressions. On my blog itself, I’m happy to report that I’ve had had 125K visits from 29,858 unique computers. To those of you reading, I thank you and (as always) welcome your comments. Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter, “like” me on Facebook, and tell your friends to do the same. Not only do I post my newest blogs, I also share interesting articles and stories.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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One Response to Impact Assessment: Self-Inflicted Genocide and the Toronto Principle

  1. Sofia says:

    What constitutes “moral evils” depends on your perspective. I’m sure that if you were forced to flee your home because of rising sea levels as a climate refugee, you would consider any entity responsible for the destruction of your home “evil.” In much the same way, you consider the Nazis morally evil because you have a personal connection to the Holocaust. Much of your family died because of the scapegoating of Jews before and during World War II.

    In my opinion, the rape of the planet is a moral evil and it must be condemned and stopped. I consider it morally objectionable to prioritize profit over human welfare and environmental wellbeing. We are not just stewards of each other, but also of the planet. We must take care of what we have been entrusted with because the Earth is a trust. When corporate entities refuse to acknowledge the reality of people’s, animals’, and the environments’ suffering because they see it as a major impediment to their maximizing their own interests, that is morally repugnant.

    Capitalism per se is not inherently evil; what is evil is any exploitative and unfettered economic system, whereby the common good is sacrificed at the altar of greed, excess consumption, and material wealth that benefits only a select few.

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