Climate change is globally recognised, but what is international law doing to avert catastrophe, says Begonia Filgueira, environmental lawyer.
In May, I took part in BBC Radio 4’s panel discussion on climate change, Unreliable Evidence – my first broadcasting experience, and a very enjoyable one. The topic was ‘The law and climate change: are our environmental laws robust enough to save the planet for humankind?’. My fellow participants were solicitor and chartered environmentalist Paul Stookes, Stephen Hockman QC and Natalie Lieven QC. We had a really interesting discussion and, as always, Clive Anderson moved proceedings on swimmingly.
We all agreed that the law has a role to play in fighting climate change. This reminded me of Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy, and his reasoning that since man was wolf to man thus we need the state and its laws to regulate our behaviour. Laws would derive from the power given to the state by a social pact that limits individual agency in the interests of peace and security. Man is also wolf to nature, and here is where environmental law comes in. We need to limit our actions in order to secure our survival.
The current international and national legal frameworks are strong. If the doctrine of common and differentiated responsibility was followed and enforced properly, we could make a difference to our survival. The problem is twofold. One: when it comes to developing nations such as China and India there are no emission targets, and the USA is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol. So the common bit falls by the wayside and the greatest polluters can do as they like for now. Two: there are no real mechanisms to enforce international law. Countries are not meeting their Kyoto targets, and very little can be done by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, apart from increasing targets, helping with action plans to meet previous and increased targets and applying political pressure. Here is where an International Environmental Court might fill (part of) the gap.
In the UK, the Climate Change Act 2008 suffers from a different malady. At a national level, the UK Courts have teeth (and sharp ones, at that), but will they be prepared to enforce the government’s statutory duty to cut emissions, including the laudable target to cut greenhouse emissions by 80 per cent by 2050? If that target is not reached by 2050, does it mean that the courts will require government to take necessary action to meet this target – such as prohibiting the use of fossil fuels by industry (including electricity companies) or closing down companies that emit greenhouse gases?
During the radio show, Clive asked whether we must return to hunter-gatherer society. The answer is no. We must achieve a balance between what we, as humans, need from nature and what we want as consumers. We need a new way of life that relieves us from relentless consumerism, and an environmental jurisprudence that reflects our new values.
The conundrum is: the planet needs a rest, we need to consume less, but our economy is based on consumerism. Gordon Brown recently asked us to consume to come out of the recession. How does that square with Labour’s environmental policy?
Yes, green the economy – let’s embrace this opportunity – but we also need to rebuild our relationship with the planet, not exploit it to our own extinction. Children were also once considered a resource; so were slaves. We have largely eradicated child labour and slavery, since they no longer reflect the values of our society; invention and innovation took up the slack.
One of the measures I advocate is that we grant rights to the Earth, in order to formalise a more equitable relationship between humankind and the planet, and to demonstrate that the dynamic has changed from one of exploitation to one of cooperation. Hobbes believed that humans cooperate out of self-interest. So, we must ask ourselves, will we humans cooperate with the planet for our survival? Or will the planet be the bigger, badder wolf, in the end?