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“A Climate Criminal Lives Here”

A Climate Challenge To The Good People of Pennington, NJ

Jim Benton, head of the NJ Petroleum Council

Jim Benton, head of the NJ Petroleum Council

The notion of shaming a person who has defied social norms is a longstanding tactic in American culture and literature – from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Megan’s Law.

But just what are the parameters of social norms that deserve widespread social shame? Is shame a legitimate political tactic? If so, should shame be focused on individuals or on their corporate employers and investors?

I have argued that appeals to shame are naive and ineffective and that the focus of activists should be on the systemic nature of capitalism and the corrupted regulatory apparatus.

While we all know of the racist and anti-semitic outrage of the Nazi “yellow badge”, few know of similar indirect forms of social pressure, short of shaming, like the  FDR’s “Blue Eagle” campaign.

But, more recently, did you ever notice those little yellow flags in your neighbor’s front yard that are supposed to warn you about the risk of recent pesticide spraying? Do you think homeowners are just a little ashamed of that?

You want shame? Suppose we had a little red flag that warned that a climate criminal lives here?

Regardless, the Climate disinvestment movement seeks to use a form of shame as a tactic to discredit and shame corporations, e.g. see the NY Times story:

The logic of the campaign is that diminishing support from the markets will create financial hardship and ultimately lead fossil fuel producers to change. But there is an open secret: For all its focus on stock holdings, the true impact of divestment campaigns has nothing to do with a company’s investor base, share price or creditworthiness. […]

But that does not mean divestment campaigns have no consequences. What they do best is good old-fashioned public shaming.

The Oxford researchers found that the negative publicity can create reputational headaches.

“It becomes much harder for stigmatized businesses to recruit good people, to influence policy and, occasionally, to raise capital,” Mr. Caldecott said.

Divestment campaigns also give activists a focused — and easy to understand — object for their outrage.

“The goal is not to bankrupt the fossil fuel industry. We can’t do that with divestment alone,” said Bill McKibben, whose group, 350.org, is a leader in the divestment movement. “But we can help politically bankrupt them. We can impair their ability to dominate our political life.”

So, while we do NOT agree with the efficacy of the shame tactic, if that tactic is going to be deployed, if it is going to be effective, we think it might be equally or more usefully focused on individuals as well as corporations and that it might be brought home – literally – to those individuals.

So, today, we take a shot at what such a local shaming campaign might look like.

Objectively, if one considers the devastating effects of climate change on hundreds of millions of people currently living on planet earth – including death and displacement, and not counting the death and destroyed lives of future generations – then arguably we need a mechanism to defend people and society from “climate offenders”.

So just how might we defend ourselves from “climate offenders” using shaming tactics?

Like NJ, the Pennsylvania Legislature has concluded that some  people warrant special attention because of acts they have committed that harm innocent children, people, and society:

Pennsylvania’s General Assembly has determined public safety will be enhanced by making information about registered sexual offenders available to the public through the internet. Knowledge whether a person is a registered sexual offender could be a significant factor in protecting yourself, your family members, or persons in your care from recidivist acts by registered sexual offenders. Public access to information about registered sexual offenders is intended solely as a means of public protection, any other use prohibited.

Pursuant 42 Pa.C.S. § 9799.28, the State Police has established this website to provide timely information to the public on registered sexual offenders who reside, or are transient, attend school, or are employed/carry on a vocation, within this Commonwealth.

Such a shaming system would, as the Pennsylvania legislature concluded – “be a significant factor in protecting yourself, your family members, or persons in your care from recidivist acts by registered [climate] offenders.

I once lived in Hopewell, NJ, and had frequent involvement with our neighbors, the good people of Pennington Boro.

In fact, I can think of no other place in NJ with a more righteous, politically correct, and liberal sensibility than Pennington Boro, where a person is socially ostracized for going over 15 mph on Main Street or enjoying a competitive youth soccer game.

So today, we register our first “Climate Criminal” – Jim Benton, head of the NJ Petroleum  Council – who lives right in the heart of liberal Pennington Boro.

In Trenton, Benton and his fossil energy lobbyists friends tend – as Bill McKibben warned against- to “dominate our political life.”

How do the good people of Pennington feel about that?

Jim’s thoughts on our climate crisis are presented in today’s Bergen Record story:

[Jim] Benton argued that if that happens, it’s a good thing for the state’s economy because the industry provides high-paying industrial jobs. He dismissed Tittel’s warnings of dire consequences to the environment.

“What we are going to see in New Jersey is increased investment in infrastructure, in the delivery system,” he said. “It will really supplement the industry’s presence there.”

Hey Jimbo – how about if we locate the next refinery and pipeline in Pennington? Right in your backyard.

It is a target rich environment – there are many more “Climate Criminals” yet to be named and shamed.

We hope to bring you more.

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