TThe world has reached an acute point on the ‘highway to climate hell’. The talks at COP27 have come close to nothing, despite the fact that nearly a third of Pakistan’s territory has been submerged by unprecedented flooding; record summer heat killed nearly 25,000 in Europe; and nearly 200,000 people in a major US city have not had clean water for months.
It is all too easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless in the face of such a widespread catastrophe. But we as citizens can do something right now. There are many interesting and entirely achievable legal ideas filtering around the world from some very thoughtful people. Together, coupled with increased citizen activism, these ideas can begin to provide a coherent and comprehensive legal framework for all of us to help save the planet.
Here are five key legal steps that I believe can help fundamentally place our planet’s trajectory on a more positive footing:
1) Make ecocide an international crime
Ecocide must be designated as the world’s fifth heinous crime, with the same moral power and legal impact as genocide and crimes against humanity. It has been defined by an international panel of jurists led by Philippe Sands as “unlawful or arbitrary acts” with “the understanding that there is a substantial likelihood that such acts will cause serious, widespread or long-term damage to the environment”. Put simply, ecocide prohibits the deliberate destruction of the environment in such a way that people die and ecosystems are destroyed. More importantly, the law applies to private companies and their directors in a personal capacity.
This is not theoretical. It expressly outlaws what many oil and mining companies have repeatedly done to vulnerable indigenous and agricultural communities around the world. Ecocide is not just ordinary pollution; it is highly destructive and happens with intent or extreme recklessness.
Ecocide would expose executives of fossil fuel companies to potential criminal liability for signing pollution bills. And that personal exposure will significantly change the decision-making calculus of these pro-planet executives.
2) Implement the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty
Spurred by civil society and officially proposed weeks ago at the United Nations General Assembly by the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is a broad, legally binding proposal to phase out our global dependence on fossil fuels. The treaty requires member states to stop all new investments in fossil fuels and begin phasing out existing operations. This addresses a major failure of the COP27 summit which never agreed on the need for an orderly plan to phase out the sector.
While the Paris Agreement established voluntary guidelines for countries to take important steps to alleviate some of the worst impacts of the climate crisis, there is generally no legal enforcement mechanism. This treaty is the first of its kind and would create another vital step towards a truly sustainable future.
3) End Slapp lawsuits and other legal retaliation
When all else fails, the Slapp lawsuits (or strategic lawsuits against public participation) have become the fossil fuel industry’s benchmark move to silence environmental activists, drain resources from advocates, and undermine the environmental movement. climate, which is the most essential component to forcing governments to phase out the sector.
These lawsuits are basically attacks on free speech, but they come in all sorts of disguises: defamation, harassment, trespassing, even racketeering. They are particularly prevalent in the United States, where frivolous lawsuits brought by industry players against groups such as Greenpeace are intended to intimidate rather than challenge substantive claims. The full range of so-called prosecutions of protesters at Standing Rock and Line 3 are essentially slapping actions in service of the fossil fuel industry.
A report by EarthRights International shows that the fossil fuel industry has used these legal tactics against more than 150 people and organizations over the past 10 years. Once again, the world is fortunate to have two main coalitions – one in the United States and one in Europe – to call attention to and oppose this brutal tactic.
The solution is simple. Governments must enact what are called anti-slapping laws that punish companies that engage in this type of legal intimidation. These anti-slapp laws, which exist in some US states like California and have been proposed at the federal and European Union levels, could and should lead to massive fines for fossil fuel companies and government agencies that resort to them. abuse.
4) Protect the sources of the Amazon
A silent legal revolution is being led by indigenous peoples in the Amazonian countries of Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru. Called the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative, these frontline Earth advocates have proposed a feasible plan to provide international legal protection to what may be Earth’s most important ecosystem. Essentially, this plan would ban any further development of fossil fuels in the area that includes the headwaters of the Amazon and contains the largest concentration of biodiversity on the planet.
The initiative has already released an incredibly impressive bioregional plan for 2030. It also has the benefit of being organized on the ground by real forest stewards, including some 30 separate indigenous nationalities under the banner of an organization founded in 1984 in Lima. called Coica (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin). The initiative is promoted by the Pachamama Alliance, an organization that has been working with indigenous peoples in the Amazon region since the 1990s.
5) Binding climate compensation
There was much talk at the COP27 summit about the need to compensate under-resourced countries for the damage caused by rich nations which are largely responsible for the negative impacts of the climate crisis, migration, economic damage and poverty. Global Witness, one of the world’s most effective NGOs at holding the fossil fuel sector accountable for its corruption, has compiled an excellent summary of the reparations issues. A small victory at COP27 was that a ‘repairs’ fund was agreed within the last hour, although there was no real commitment to actually putting money into the fund.
The problem is simple: wealthier nations like the United States and China have been playing opossum by insisting on voluntary pledges under the guise of “climate finance,” which essentially means a mix of loans, debt relief, and technology that would bought from the global market south by the for-profit companies of the north. This approach falls far short of the significant change needed in the amount of time left before even more devastating irreversible damage occurs.
What is needed is a binding international treaty in which each rich country pays a fixed amount proportional to its GDP into a fund administered by a neutral party with effective representation from the small countries most affected.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that these proposed changes alone will save the planet. But the right combination of legal changes happening quickly can catalyze progress. Legal changes can both reflect the increased power of the citizens who are making them, and further strengthen the power of citizens to engage in climate activism more broadly. Having a clear framework to connect the dots and push for this package of legal changes will go a long way in moving us forward towards a sustainable future.