David Koch is dead.
The billionaire died this week at age 79 of causes yet unknown. While he certainly enjoyed the fruits of his labors to deregulate U.S. industry and reduce taxes on the super-wealthy like himself, he will never have to experience the consequences of his biggest achievement: putting the entire planet on the brink of crisis in the service of enriching himself and a few other fossil fuel billionaires. And we, the people and future generations who are going to live with the fallout, will never see him or the small cadre of wealthy conservatives who funded decades of climate denial face any form of justice.
Koch’s death was first reported by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer Friday morning and confirmed by his surviving brother, Charles, shortly thereafter. The two brothers were tied as the 11th richest people on the planet on the Forbes 100, with an estimated net worth of $50.5 billion each. They amassed so much wealth in part through business savvy—you likely don’t go a day without coming in contact with something made by some subsidiary of their privately owned Koch Industries conglomerate—and in part because they spent a comparative pittance of that fortune on turning our political system into a fucking nightmare. Funding astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity and conservative politicians has led to widespread deregulation and huge tax breaks for their businesses, allowing them to take an even bigger share of the pie.
If ratcheting up inequality were all the Kochs did, they would still be arch-villains. But the Koch brothers’ businesses from fossil fuel extraction and refining to petrochemical and fertilizer production all rely on being able to emit carbon pollution with abandon. In the 1990s, as the world moved toward an awakening on climate change and the need to address it, the Koch machine moved to block any regulations or price on carbon that would cut into their profits by funding doubt and denial. Greenpeace estimates the brothers spent $127 million from 1997 to 2017 funding 92 organizations that muddied the waters on climate change, a move that helped make international efforts to combat climate change, like the Kyoto Protocol, worthless. They funded a network of overlapping climate denial organizations to kill a 2009 bill that would have created a cap and trade system, a very business-friendly climate solution they rejected on principle.
Now David Koch is dead. And he will never have to live with the consequences of his actions, all of which were for, I don’t know, making a point as part of some libertarian 101 seminar or maybe just plain old greed. (You could argue the two are synonymous.) Ditto for the other largely anonymous small cadre of conservative billionaires and fossil fuel executives who have peddled climate denial over the years all while making the problem worse by extracting more poison from the ground and putting it in the atmosphere. They’ll likely die long before things get really bleak, and the profits they made as one of the biggest market failures in human history will almost certainly ensure their descendants are insulated from the worst impacts.
If David Koch and his brother hadn’t funded denial—as Charles is likely to continue to do—it’s possible that the world would have taken steps to drawdown carbon pollution decades ago. If the world began cutting emissions in 2000, it would have had to do so at a rate of 4 percent per year to keep warming under the 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) threshold. Starting today means “monumental” cuts. If we don’t do anything for 10 years, we’re in deep trouble. All the funding Koch kicked in for arts and cancer research won’t matter if the world burns down, a thing that’s actively happening to the Amazon rainforest on the same week he passed away.
David Koch will never have to watch the world struggle to climb the steepening curve he helped propel into existence. And he’ll never have to live with the consequences if we don’t. If the world misses the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, the impacts will be severe. Coral will likely disappear. Large swaths of island nations could become uninhabitable by midcentury. Millions of more people who rely on rainfed agriculture will face hunger as the weather becomes more erratic. Livelihoods will disappear. Societies will vanish. People, in short, will die.
There is deep injustice in David Koch’s death. Journalist Kate Aronoff has made the case that fossil fuel executives should be tried for crimes against humanity. Those trials—if they happen—would be unlikely to snare some of the biggest perpetrators of those crimes because they too will already be dead. Climate change is a form of violence that will largely affect people with little power to address it or relatively little role in creating it. Death is an escape hatch for David Koch while the rest of us are left scrambling for the emergency brake before we go over the cliff.