Lawyers’ group calls for international court on climate change
|Report an Error|
Share via Email
An increasing number of extreme weather events are wreaking havoc on the world’s most vulnerable people and bulldozing economies, but climate laws are woefully inadequate to deal with human rights, says a groundbreaking new report by an influential lawyers’ group.
The group also calls for the creation of an international court on the environment that would deal with climate change disputes, much like the United Nation’s International Court of Justice.
The 240-page report has been put together by the International Bar Association, which comprises 200 bar associations worldwide and has more than 55,000 members. It is the first time that a legal organization of this size has studied climate justice and the role of human rights law in addressing climate challenge.
The report was released Monday.
“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our times,” said David Estrin, co-chair of the panel that put the report together. “And it is the one that we are most inadequately prepared for.”
Estrin works for Gowlings law firm in Toronto and was one of the first Canadian lawyers to specialize in environmental law more than four decades ago.
The report comes on the heels of the giant People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday and just before leaders from more than 120 countries prepare to attend a United Nations Climate Summit to announce initiatives meant to move the world toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions. A final agreement will be adopted in 2015, at the Paris climate conference, and then implemented from 2020 onward.
Climate scientists and environmentalists have long said that 2020 is an important year — that emission cuts must begin in earnest then if global warming is to be limited.
The IBA, said Estrin, completely agrees with the scientific consensus on climate change. When working on the report, the panel studied assessments by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The report says that even though climate change affects everyone, it impacts those people the most who have contributed to it the least; they also lack the resources to respond.
It assesses the challenges facing countries poorly suited to provide legal remedies to those most affected, and recommends reforms that help protect and preserve environmental and human rights.
One key recommendation is “recognition for a new universal human right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.”
(More than 90 countries have included the “right to live in a healthy environment” in their constitutions; the U.S., Canada, Australia and Britain are not among them.)
Climate change is often framed as an issue of science, economics, policy and politics, “but more than anything else, it is an issue of ethics and justice,” said Michael E. Mann, a well-known climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.
“This report stresses the key point that those who are most likely to feel the worst impacts of climate change had the least role in creating the problem,” he said.
What particularly struck Mann about the IBA report was the recommendation that every human has the right to a safe, healthy and sustainable environment. That provides a framework for bringing to justice “those who infringe on that right, particularly those fossil fuel interests who continue to deny the existence or danger of climate change as they continue to pollute,” he said.
For Andrew Weaver, a Green Party MLA in British Columbia and the Lansdowne professor at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, it was heartening to see lawyers join the fight against climate change.
The insurance industry, which sees climate change issues through claims, has been cataloguing its pitfalls for a long time, said Weaver. “Lawyers are seeing the same issues through litigation. . . It makes total sense that they would want to weigh in.”
Most recommendations in the report will take years of negotiations, including the one for an international court on the environment, said Weaver. “But the fact that they are talking about it is important . . . you start doing things by talking.”
The IBA is talking openly about climate change, said Estrin.
It wants to help its members understand that climate change is no ordinary problem and “that we have a short window of time when humankind can actually act,” said Estrin.
The next challenge is how to engage so many countries, but there is a strategy.
“We have an advantage. . . IBA has members in almost every country in the world — lawyers and judges,” Estrin pointed out. The report will be formally presented to IBA delegates on Oct. 22 in Tokyo at the association’s annual conference and the hope is that “they will take the message back . . . that we have to act fast.”
Some members will become advocates for reforms as they are taken forward in their countries.
For instance, one recommended reform is that countries incorporate environmental assessment studies before any major project. It happens in many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, but it’s not universal.
“Our members work for corporations, too,” said Estrin. “They will have a say in corporate responsibilities.”
The IBA report did not get into the issue of climate change refugees that many experts say will likely snowball in coming decades.
Estrin said the panel recognized it is a “significant issue but there just wasn’t enough time for clear definitive recommendations for something that important.”
It will be the subject of another report, he said.
“There are many victims of climate change already, but what is happening now will pale in comparison to what will happen in the future,” said Estrin. “It is important we put measures that limit climate change.”