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Trump Convicted for Fraud, Shell Execs Next in Line for Climate Catastrophe Crimes?

Shell execs, are you sweating yet?

POSTED BY JOHN DONOVAN: 3 June 2024

On May 30, a New York jury found former President Donald Trump guilty of 34 charges related to hush money payments and falsifying business records. While the country is split over the conviction and the inevitable appeal, there’s an unexpected silver lining: this case could be a roadmap for nailing climate criminals like the execs at Shell and TotalEnergies.

Activists have long been dragging companies and governments into court to make them face the consequences of their climate sins. Most of these battles have been in civil courts, where the penalties are mostly financial—because nothing screams justice like a fine that barely dents corporate profits. The one notable exception was a 2021 Dutch court ruling that ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. Shell, predictably, is appealing the decision because, you know, profits over planet.

Now, though, a new legal theory is emerging, aiming to slap criminal penalties on the corporate suits ruining the environment. Recently, climate activists filed a criminal complaint against TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanné, the board, and major shareholders like BlackRock and Norges Bank. Their alleged crime? “Deliberately endangering the lives of others, manslaughter, neglecting to deal with a disaster, and damaging biodiversity.”

Despite the drama, it’s unlikely that any formal charges will stick against TotalEnergies. But the complaint shows how activists are itching to use the criminal justice system to force real change. Enter the Trump case: an unconventional prosecution that used business records laws to nail him. Could this be the blueprint for future climate cases?

Trump’s conviction came under New York’s Title K: Offenses Involving Fraud. He was specifically nailed under Section 175.10: Falsifying business records in the first degree, a class E felony. The charge required proving Trump falsified records with the intent to commit another crime. Shell execs, are you sweating yet?

Here’s where it gets juicy for climate activists. With the rise of sustainability reporting and ESG (environmental, social, and governance) reports, companies are under the microscope for their green claims. Greenwashing—exaggerating eco-friendly actions—is becoming a hot legal issue. Regulators and activists are ready to pounce on misleading claims. If companies like Shell and TotalEnergies are caught fudging their green numbers, they could face charges similar to those Trump faced.

In recent years, sustainability and ESG reporting have skyrocketed, driven by demands from fund managers, consumers, and international pressures. The International Sustainability Standards Board and the European Union have rolled out new reporting standards. In the U.S., the SEC’s Climate-Related Disclosure Rule is on pause due to legal challenges, but it shows the regulatory heat is on.

While no significant attempts have yet been made to use business record laws for climate claims, the Trump conviction could be the catalyst. Companies and their execs need to be squeaky clean with their climate claims or risk facing criminal prosecution. Maybe it’s time they hire some legal experts to navigate these stormy waters.

So, next time you hear about Shell’s latest “green” initiative, remember: the legal noose is tightening. Thanks to Trump’s downfall, the path to holding climate criminals accountable just got a little clearer.

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