By James Hurren
For decades the world has been aware that human activity is heating up the planet to dangerous levels, with potentially calamitous consequences. Despite efforts by the government, businesses and individuals to curtail the trend, carbon emissions are still rising. Perhaps new thinking is needed, since previous attempts to deal with the problem have failed. So what could be done?
In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act prohibited the use of slaves throughout the British Empire. It was the culmination of a movement whose progress had at times been glacial; with the first abolition bill put to the British parliament in 1791 and defeated by 163 votes to 88. The slave trade had made fortunes across the Empire and hundreds of companies lobbied against its prohibition, warning it would cause a catastrophic economic collapse.
There are parallels between this example and the campaign for substantial action on the climate crisis. Resistance to a meaningful global response is similarly pessimistic, led by major corporations and countered by the work of a principled few. Just like the first bill was placed before parliament some 42 years before slavery was totally abolished throughout the Empire, the movement for substantial political action began more than two decades ago.
When the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted in July 1998, it established four international crimes against peace. These were genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. A fifth crime was proposed: ecocide. It is defined as the extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished. It had been widely supported by states cooperating to conceive the Rome Statute. Were it not for a handful of unconvinced members, ecocide would have been included and legislated by the ICC.
Unilateral action is not enough to combat a global crisis. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of industrial emissions. In most cases they mine, pump, ship and sell across borders. The addition of ecocide to the Rome Statute would allow an objective, independent response to the kind of environmental exploitation that is causing the climate crisis. Not only would it facilitate this type of action, the adoption of ecocide to the Rome Statute would also place a duty on persons of ‘superior responsibility’ to ensure their actions do not cause extensive damage.
Consideration for the adoption of ecocide by the Rome Statute requires just one signatory head of state to call for an amendment to the statute, triggering an assembly of members.The existing crimes against peace set out in the Statute along with international agreements to mitigate damage to the environment offer a precedent for the addition of ecocide to the ICC’s jurisdiction. Including it would set a universal standard for environmental protection in a way that no existing legislation has done before. Even the Paris Agreement, conceived by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is feeble in comparison; it pertains only to state actors and requires members to simply set more progressive targets than those they had previously, with no mechanism for enforcement. Allowing the ICC to intervene in cases of gross destruction of the environment offers legislation on both states and corporations.
Additionally, there is a strong public appetite. Increased awareness through programs like Blue Planet, along with high profile protests such as the ‘School Strike for Climate’ and Extinction Rebellion, have caught the attention of both citizens and politicians around the world. Faith leaders, like Pope Francis and Bishop Desmond Tutu, have spoken of a moral duty of care for the environment and creating legal liability for climate crime. A change in public opinion is manifested in the growth in popularity of green parties across Europe as well as the adoption of more substantive environmental policies by major political parties.
The idea is said to have a number of shortcomings. For example, why not strengthen the laws already in place for protecting the environment? New legislation is required because the current legal framework is simply not working. The addition of ecocide to the Rome Statute would mean any exploitation of the environment would be monitored and regulated by an impartial, supranational organisation with a multilateral mandate.
Another criticism is that it is too macro in its approach, giving exclusive responsibility to CEOs and heads of state rather than calling on collective action from the general population. Greater investment into education about the environment and our impact on it would go some way to mitigate the politicisation of the climate crisis as well as allowing consumers to make informed decisions, turning down irresponsible suppliers in favour of the more sustainable. However, reliance on the market’s invisible hand is sound in theory but in practice it falls short in the same way prior action on the climate crisis has. Not only does it rely on transparency of corporations and accurate reporting of their practices — an unrealistic assumption — it also fails to address a global problem on a global scale.
A report published by the Joint Research Centre listed China, the USA and Russia as the three countries which emit the most carbon dioxide. Along with other states known for their poor environmental records, they are not members of the ICC. Prohibition on the destruction of the environment would therefore fall short of legislating against some of the key perpetrators. It would nevertheless set a precedent for sustainable practices and a mechanism for multilateral condemnation of state actors not signatory to the ICC. A global consensus on any initiative is inherently utopic and therefore the lack of universal support is no reason to scrap the project. Not only can prohibiting extensive ecological damage still be worthwhile, as it would help preserve the environment directly, it is likely to be the most convincing method of persuading unconvinced states of the need for sustainability.
The economic collapse forecast following the abolition of slavery did not materialise. Opponents to the abolitionist movement are now rightly criticised for their inhumanity whilst proponents are lauded for their incorrigible morality. Once again faceless corporations and short-sighted governments are at war with a principled few. The stoic empathy of those that fought for the abolition of slavery can serve as inspiration in the fight for substantive global action on the climate crisis.
James Hurren is a final Politics student at the University of Surrey.