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Using Human Rights Law to Address Climate Change
Sarah Kuck, 29 May 09

What are the legal and human rights implications of climate change?

As the evidence becomes stronger and the science more serious, people in countries, companies, institutions and professions everywhere are taking up the issue of climate change and sounding the alarm.

Among these concerned global citizens are lawyers and legal professionals. To gather this community together, law students at the University of Washington organized a conference called Three Degrees: The Law of Climate Change and Human Rights Conference. On May 28 and 29, members of the legal community and others came together to further explore the possibility of using human rights law as a way to address climate change. According to the conference organizers, "the application of both codified and customary international and national human rights law will be critical in addressing the massive humanitarian crises ignored by technical market solutions to climate change and moderate political reforms."

I sat in on the first day of the conference and was amazed at the roster, which included Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland; Carolyn Raffensperger, the executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network; Dorothy McIntosh, the Climate and Carbon Business Development Manager for Mercy Corps; Daniel Magraw, the president and chief executive officer of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL); Stephen Humphreys, the research director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP), and many others.

The conference was organized to help attendees discuss how law will play a role in anticipating and responding to foreseeable human consequences of climate change. You can stream today's events live (Our own Alex Steffen will be speaking at 2:30 PST) or you can wait a few days for the organizers to place the videos from both days online.

Yesterday's speakers were diverse and knowledgeable about a range of topics. I truly do recommend watching the webcasts today and once they are available permanently. But here are a few interesting thoughts and ideas I heard at the conference to whet your appetite:

Victoria Hykes Steere, Iñupiat

Victoria Hykes Steere is author of an essay titled “An Iñupiaq Reflection on ‘Ice,’” from Global Warming Reader, by William H. Rodgers, Jr., Jeni Barcelos, Anna Moritz, and Michael Robinson-Dorn, (in press, Carolina Academic Press, Durham). She is also a former law student of William H. Rodgers, Jr., at the University of Washington School of Law.

"Our market-based economy owes its existence to Adam Smith and his tract, "The Wealth of Nations." We now must rethink our consumer-based economy. We must learn to share this planet with one another and all animals. The challenge to use climate change to create the opportunity to remake the way we interact with the earth's systems is inspiring. The chance to totally reshape our relationships with the earth, each other and to ensure future generations rarely comes. We must all reach out of our comfort zones and make the message simple. The lives of our children, the oceans, and animals flicker in front of us. Simple is best. Not fear, not anger or guilt but some thing simple and beautiful that we all dream together with the political will to make the dream reality.

*from her essay “ICE”

Climbing Poetree

Climbing PoeTree is the expression of a growing movement for radical social change. Poets, performers, print-makers, dancers, muralists, and designers, Alixa and Naima have sharpened their art as a tool for popular education, community organizing, and personal transformation. With roots in Haiti and Colombia, Alixa and Naima reside in Brooklyn and track footprints across the country and globe on a mission to overcome destruction with creativity.

“When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, there was one tree that did not fall over in abundance. The oak tree stood strong in the midst of fierce winds and rising water. The oak tree doesn’t send its roots deep down, but stretches them wide and connects with other oak trees…nature is telling us what to do in an emergency.”

David Battisti

David Battisti is The Tamaki Endowed Chair of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington. David received a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences (1988) from the University of Washington. He was an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin until 1990. Since then, he has been on the Faculty in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, and has served as the Director of JISAO (1997-2003) and of the UW’s Earth Initiative (2003-2006).

In his presentation, Battisti presented facts showing the connection between climate change and global food security. The science shows that global annual temperatures are likely to increase an average of 3 degrees. This will have the most serious impacts for people living in the subtropics and tropics because those living in these regions are heavily dependent on agriculture for food and income. Changes in temperature and precipitation will decrease the amount of soil moisture, stressing crops and putting at least 200 million people at risk of hunger by 2080.

Elenora E. Connors

Elenora (Nora) E. Connors is a law fellow at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. The Institute is the premier center for health law, scholarship, and policy; its mission is to provide innovative solutions to leading domestic and international health problems

In her presentation, Connors stated that climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st Century. She said that this is due to the predicted erosion of the fundamental determinants of health: air, water, food, shelter, freedom from disease. Unfortunately, those with the fewest resources and those who have contributed the lease to climate change will fare the worst in the face of its impacts, such as heat waves, floods, storms, fires, droughts, malaria, malnutrition, diarrheal diseases.

Policy will need to be developed in uncertainty, said Connors. Those working on these issues are arguing that we should use the precautionary principle, for what would happen without these policies would be much worse.

Carolyn Raffensperger

Carolyn Raffensperger is the executive director of the Science and Environmental Health Network. Along with leading workshops and giving frequent lectures on the Precautionary Principle, Carolyn is at the forefront of developing new models for government that depend on the larger ideas of precaution and ecological integrity.

"It is the duty of each generation to pass the commons on to future generations unimpaired. These services and infrastructure of the Earth necessary for humans and other living beings to be fully biological and communal creatures shall reside with in the domain of the commons."

Raffensperger provided one model for protecting future generations: legal guardians. She said other countries, such as Hungary and France, are already practicing this by appointing commissioners, ombudsmen and guardians for future generations.

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and more former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate. As an academic (Trinity College Law Faculty 1968-90), legislator (Senator 1969-89) and barrister (1967-90, Senior Counsel 1980, English Bar 1973) she has always sought to use law as an instrument for social change, arguing landmark cases before the European Court of Human Rights as well as in the Irish courts and the European Court in Luxemburg. Currently based in New York, Mary Robinson is now leading Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative. Its mission is to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage

"In many countries human development will be stalled, or even reversed. Whole countries may be lost to sea level rise. There will be high risk of violent conflict, and increases in rouge weather events, water table levels...Clearly there are multiple human rights issues at stake as a result of climate change. Human Rights Law hasn’t evolved to deal responsibly with the transnational responsibility of states. "

"We need to link human rights and environmental issues...we need to take a broader climate justice approach."

She then presented the following “Guidelines for Climate Justice,” which were developed to serve as basic ethical benchmarks for action.

1) Take responsibility for the pollution you cause

2) Act according to capability and capacity

3) Share benefits and burdens equitably

4) Respect and strengthen human rights

5) Reduce risks to a minimum

6 Integrate solutions

7) Act in an accountable, transparent and reliable manner

8) Act now!

Looking at the data, we know that certain countries will fare far worse than others. Ironically these same countries are the ones who are least responsible for climate changing emissions. The implication of applying human rights law to climate change, and using law in general as a solution, is that there will be defendants and plaintiffs. Guilty parties will be held responsible, and hopefully accountable. But who will be held responsible for the ice caps melting? Who will be held responsible for the extinction of species? The forced migration of communities? The desertification of soil?

When Carolyn Raffensperger spoke, she said she had a dream that she was chosen to draft the indictment against her generation for crimes committed against future generations.

In her dream, said her heart was broken. To the audience at Three Degrees she said that now is the time to speak out for the voiceless.

"People who live today have the sacred right and obligation to protect the commonwealth of the Earth and the common health of people and all our relation for generations to come," Raffensperger said. "This generation can act as we know we want to and must!"

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Nice summary, Sarah.

More on Carolyn Raffensperger's ideas on guardianship for future generations here:

Posted by: Howard Silverman on 29 May 09

Great approach. Writer Sandra Steingraber has been saying similar things for a while-- applied beyond just climate to environmental hazards of all kinds. Her experience with cancer and industrial chemicals is a powerful story, and touches on the human rights idea. See her recent piece in Orion magazine, here:

Posted by: Scott Gast on 29 May 09

Here in Pickering, Ontario, Canada, I'm using the Criminal Code of Canada to stop the construction of a proposed international airport and the development of 15 new communities all upwind from where I live. I addition I'm blocking other upwind jurisdictions from building as well, again using the Criminal Code.

The actual crimes were committed by elected members of the provincial government as well as civil servants.

There are four major crimes including fraud that have already been committed and six that will be committed if I lose. As well there is two other separate charges that could be laid - either or. They are Crimes Against Humanity and/or Genocide.

Altogether, there is 20 billion dollars involved as well as the chemical injuries of over a million people at the eastern end of Toronto. Thousands will die prematurely as a direct result of the hundreds of millions of tons of new sources of air pollution the province is trying to enable as part of its Places to Grow Act.

I did initiate an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. That ended on a mysterious basis. But I found a way to have the investigating officers investigated and possibly their superiors as well. The aim of this investigation is to re-open and re-launch the original investigation into government criminal activity.

There is no doubt the crimes were committed and there is no doubt about the intent to commit the future crimes as the groundwork is already in place.

Upon conviction, two of the alleged offences entail life sentences, so this is no small action. In fact, all told, this is possibly the biggest crime in Canadian history.

Most of the alleged perpetrators are elected government officials in high places.

I just finished a Powerpoint presentation on the subject that will be e-mailed to every level of government and every sitting member. They won't be able to say they weren't warned.

There are specific criteria that must be met in order to criminally prosecute a member of government. All conditions have been met, not just some of them.

All of this revolves around the concept that new developments cannot be built upwind if the air pollution emissions from the new developments are calculated to be significant enough to chemically injure, kill or detract from the quality of life of the downwind residents.

Canadians are governed by the Rule Of Law: no one is above the law. It is illegal to injure or kill anyone with anything for any reason - including air pollution.

To make sure the charges would stick, I had to create a "known-by" date with signatures from the offending parties. That was done on July 14th, 2005 as part of a legal submission to the Environmental Assessment Team dealing with the area known as the Seaton Lands. The government was legally required to investigate the validity of my claims about the health risk associated with building upwind sources of air pollution and ensure that corrective measures were taken or cancel the project if I was found to be correct. Instead the project went forward and my information was ignored. That decision affected real estate prices and market value of the land. The government claimed to have approved the completed assessment but it had not done the air quality assessment. It had substituted an assessment from another area with completely different, worse conditions and let that pass as the Seaton Assessment. That was the fraud.

Part of the fraud involved the province defrauding the developers as well as the public. There are severe financial penalties that will accrue to the developers for the province failing to meet the prescribed conditions.

I hope this will help with other actions to deal with unwanted or illegal government agendas.

Posted by: John Newell on 29 May 09

The idea of guardianship is good. Metallic resource depletion will soon hit us with crises like those that have resulted from oil shortage.

They will be more severe as oil is replaceable by abundant and relatively inexpensive alternatives while metals are not.

Metals have generally low substitutability. The focus on cap-and-trade does nothing about them. We need a structural strategies such as the one proposed at A Structural Strategy for Global Warming AND the Environment (new material added in May).

The approach addresses not only fossil fuels and global warming but also the conservation of metals and other environmental issues. It is comprehensive.

Tags: cap-and-trade problems and alternatives

Posted by: on 30 May 09

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