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Criminology and climate change: how this career path helps fight the extinction of our planet

In a fast-moving society, the evolution of any career can change based on a myriad of factors, and that’s no different for criminals. What motivates people to commit crimes can change with the seasons, which is why criminologists must always be using the information available to them to look forward.

What is criminology?

So, let’s start off with the basics: what does a criminologist do?

Deakin University Professor of Criminology Reece Walters says traditionally, criminologists have focused on crime through an understanding of causes that motivate offenders. By using data to inform the policies and practices of the criminal justice system, criminologists can support the police, court system and corrections systems.

More recently, however, Prof. Walters says the role of a criminologist has evolved.

“In recent decades, criminologists have explored harmful acts in society that have not been prohibited by law, but nevertheless provide risks, dangers and social injury,” Prof. Walters says. “In other words, criminologists also examine what is lawful but harmful, as well as what is unlawful but harmless.”

Put simply, criminologists are looking at trends. Through analysis of arrest and conviction data, interviews with offenders and victims and a review of existing and potential rehabilitation programs and approaches, for example, a criminologist can help develop government policy or support an organisation in development new programs to assist offenders.

“Criminologists are involved in an array of issues, from crimes against property, analysis of crimes and the unique offenders, crimes against the environment, the state and so on,” Prof. Walters says.

'In other words, criminologists also examine what is lawful but harmful, as well as what is unlawful but harmless.'

Professor Reece Walters,
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Viewing criminal behaviour through different lenses  

Criminologists have identified some general understanding of what societal or environmental factors affect criminal behaviour.

“In times of economic boom, we see certain crimes rise – cyber hacking, embezzlement, fraud, financial deception and so on; compared to times of economic crisis where we see increases in domestic assault, robbery, theft,” Prof. Walters says.

But analysing human behaviour and the context in which individuals operate isn’t always as black and white.

Take climate change, for example.

“In 1990, the term ‘Green Criminology’ was coined within academia to describe a sub-critical branch of criminology specifically devoted to investigation, unearthing and explaining crimes and harms committed mainly by states and corporations against the environment,” Prof. Walters says.

Through his work, Prof. Walters explores the ways in which governments and corporations compromise, manipulate and degrade food, water and air through both illegal and legal acts. For example, one area Prof. Walters examines is the unlawful air pollution where corporations deliberately exceed their permitted release of harmful emissions.

“While polluting the environment is not a crime, when corporations exceed the permissions of their licensed pollution, they commit a crime. Such actions have devastating impacts on climate security and harmful climate change.”

These are the type of big picture questions the field of criminology wrestles with: what can we as criminologists do to address the issue that threaten the extinction of our species and of the planet we inhabit?

Prof. Walters says criminologists will examine global warming, rising sea levels and the dislocation and mass migration of millions of people worldwide who flee their homelands due to the avarice and capital accumulation of fossil fuel and highly industrialised nations.

The ongoing continuation of a healthy human and non-human species requires us to have a healthy environment – a recognised human right. Criminologists seek to uphold, defend and enable this right by identifying and mitigating against actions that jeopardise such inalienable rights.

It’s global criminology, one that requires collaboration with transitional entities in regulation, compliance and enforcement; one that engages with international law and trade policy, and one that adheres to the fundamental principles of human and social justice.

So, whether you want to get into the mind of a criminal or you want to better understand how governments and organisations impact the future of our planet, criminology is an evolving field helping address broad issues.

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Professor Reece Walters
Professor Reece Walters

School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

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