Criminalizing Weather-related Fatalities
Deaths from natural disasters are traditionally considered “acts of God,” or “acts of nature,” beyond human control. This view is being challenged in a French trial where prosecutors have charged a small-town mayor with manslaughter for deaths caused by storm flooding. The precedent of criminalizing weather-related deaths would delight climate-change activists who increasingly call for criminal trials of anyone skeptical of their agenda.
The mayor, Réné Marratier, was arrested after Cyclone Xynthia hit the French Atlantic coast in February 2010. The French State is seeking a four-year jail sentence for the drowning deaths of twenty-nine people in his town of La Faute-sur-Mer. The mayor’s lawyers describe the proposed sentence as “unprecedented and disproportionate.” After Hurricane Katrina, in comparison, no one suggested that Mayor Ray Nagin was criminally responsible for 1,800 deaths.
In the early 1990s, Mayor Marratier approved building permits for housing developments on a spit of sand between the Atlantic Ocean and the Lay River Estuary. The area is at or below sea level, protected by dunes and sea walls. According to a report from the Storm Surges Congress, the region historically had “low frequencies of storm surge related floods… and low levels of mortality.”
The mayor wanted his town to profit from a real-estate boom, driven in part by retirees who sought modest vacation homes on the coast. From 1988 to 1992, housing prices in France and Spain doubled. The mayor was under pressure from several constituencies: local builders wanted the work; his voters wanted the increased tax revenue, and buyers wanted houses.
Furthermore, although the mayor had initial jurisdiction over building permits, the final stamp of approval was given by the Direction Départementale de l'équipement (DDE) in Paris. At the trial, the mayor’s lawyer asked indignantly how the prosecution could reproach his client, a small-town mayor with no expertise in coastal defense engineering, “for not having reviewed the work of specialists who have made it their career.”
The fact that the houses were built in a low-lying area does not prove that the mayor showed disregard for the life and safety of the residents. 26% of the Netherlands is below sea level, land that is home to 60% of the population. The Dutch government constantly monitors dikes with high-tech equipment and satellites, repairing and improving them as needed.
In contrast, the dikes in La Faute-sur-Mer have been poorly maintained since Napoleon built them two centuries ago. The French government was aware of the weakness of their coastal defenses and after a smaller 1999 flood, funds were allocated to modernize and raise all dikes by one meter. Eleven years later only half the money had been spent, and 1,000 kilometers of dikes were known to be unsafe. The parallel to Hurricane Katrina, when the Army Corps of Engineers never performed work funded by Congress to improve levies in New Orleans, is striking.
Another factor that led to the high death count was the inappropriate design of the houses in the development. Until 1980, houses on the French coast had their living areas elevated by a few meters, as is common in many beach communities. The builders in La Faute-sur-mer, however, constructed single-story houses at ground level, responding to the needs of their clients, who preferred living on a single level without staircases. As flood waters rose, residents were unable to escape to upper floors.
It gets even more macabre: insurance companies offered rebates for the installation of metal shutters on the windows and doors to protect from wind damage. The elderly residents preferred shutters with electric motors over manual shutters. Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone that electric shutters don’t work during a power outage. When the flooding from Xynthia cut off power, people were trapped in their homes as water rose to the ceilings.
Finally, Meteo France, the equivalent of the National Weather Service, broadcast high wind warnings as Xynthia approached, encouraging residents to close the deadly shutters. The broadcast indicated potential flood danger with a small symbol on the television screen, which most viewers did not notice. Despite this flood warning, national and regional authorities did not issue an order to evacuate, leaving the decision to local officials.
In the aftermath of the storm, a proposal from the French State to bulldoze 674 homes in flood-prone areas was met with strong local resistance, evidence of support for the mayor’s pro-development stance.
In sum, Mayor Marratier had opportunities to prevent the 29 deaths, but many other parties share responsibility. The prosecution, however, argues that the mayor’s failure to take appropriate action constitutes the crime of “involuntary manslaughter by criminal negligence,” defined in American law as follows:
Criminally negligent manslaughter occurs where there is an omission to act when there is a duty to do so… which leads to a death. The existence of the duty is essential because the law does not impose criminal liability for a failure to act unless a specific duty is owed to the victim.
A duty to act was established when “authorities” warned the mayor about flooding danger. France 24 summarizes: The mayor “is accused of ignoring warnings from the regional authorities by allowing construction in the low-lying area.” As we hear repeatedly, the science is settled; global warming causes rising sea levels, more extreme weather events and increased flooding.
In this case, the “regional authorities” acted correctly. Adaptation measures like improving dikes and rewriting building codes are entirely sensible, and should have been done. But this does not mitigate the danger of making it a crime to ignore the warnings of mid-level bureaucrats and climate activists. The potential for abuse is enormous. Warnings about global warming are often motivated by anti-capitalism and utopianism. If “authorities” warn that burning fossil fuels will lead to millions of deaths, will it be a crime to oppose a solar energy mandate? Even questioning the science of "anthropogenic climate disruption", as it is now called, could be a criminal act since it influences politicians to vote against climate legislation.
If this sounds farfetched, consider a small sample of the totalitarian invective coming from mainstream climate-change figures:
- George Mason University Professor Robert Nadeau writes in his essay, “Crimes Against Humanity: The Genocidal Campaign of the Climate Change Contrarians”: “There is no doubt that the Big Lies told by the contrarians about climate science constitute a ‘widespread and systematic attack against’ all of humanity.”
- Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: “Those who contend that global warming ‘does not exist… are guilty of ‘a criminal offense -- and they ought to be serving time for it.’”
- David Suzuki wants climate skeptics to be “thrown in the slammer.”
- James Hansen wants to put oil executives on trial for “high crimes against humanity.”
- David Roberts wrote at Grist, “we should have war crimes trials for these bastards -- some sort of climate Nuremberg."
(Note the ratcheting up of the vilifications: skeptics are no longer simply “deniers” of the climate Holocaust, but active participants in a Nazi-like genocide.)
The “Call out the Climate Change Deniers” campaign created by Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action identifies 141 members of Congress who made public statements questioning global warming. If climate zealots adapt Xynthia tactics, these statements could become evidence for the prosecution.