“We will open the gates of our city to those who deserve to enter, a city of smokestacks, pipe lines, orchards, markets and inviolate homes. With the sign of the dollar as our symbol, the sign of free trade and free minds, we will move to reclaim this country once more from the impotent savages who never discovered its nature, its meaning, its splendor.”-John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
This mind set was reinforced in the 20th century by the writings of Ayn Rand and continues in the 21st century. For example, following the financial crisis of 2008, her thought, perhaps the world’s most popular purveyor of the myth of the market, has seen something of a resurgence. There are influential political leaders, speaker of the House Paul Ryan being one of them, who brag about the fact that they grew up on a steady diet of Ayn Rand. In fact, sales of her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957) went through the roof as American business leaders struggled to hang on to their vanishing dream. The dystopian story’s mysterious protagonist, John Galt, along with other captains of American industry, decide to go on strike to protest government regulation, bringing the country to a standstill. The core of the novel is Galt’s 70-page speech, wherein Rand’s entire philosophy is laid out. In it, she denounces the Christian morality of love of one’s neighbor, calling it a “morality of sacrifice,” (quite similar to the “slave morality” of Nietzsche) while championing a “morality of life” based upon egoism and the sovereignty of the individual rational mind over the human community and the raw materials of nature.
Former chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, who joined Rand’s circle in the early fifties, helped her do research for Atlas Shrugged. In early 2010, Greenspan was asked if the financial crisis signaled an indictment of Rand’s free-market ideology. His answer is instructive: “Not at all…There is no alternative to competitive markets if you want to have economic growth and higher standards of living in a democratic society…If you merely look at history since the Enlightenment…when all of those ideas surfaced and became applicable in public policy, we’ve had an explosion of economic growth, especially in developing countries, where hundreds of millions of people have been pulled out of extreme poverty and starvation…”
Greenspan and Ryan, and Rand are of course right about the explosion of economic growth resulting from global capitalism, but they appear blind to the eco-social costs of this growth. Half of the world’s 2.2 billion children currently live in poverty, almost a billion people lack access to safe water supplies, about 25 million acres of crop land are lost every year due to soil erosion, and 50% of the world’s non-human species may be extinct by the end of the 21st century. Further, global climate change resulting from “free market” industrial capitalism is threatening to make all these injustices far worse, in addition to other consequences.
As for past injustices, Rand’s celebration of the genocide of the native population (she calls them “impotent savages”) that once called Turtle Island home is a telling reminder that capitalism has always been wed to colonialism. In order to achieve perpetual growth, capitalist markets had to continually expand into untapped territories, there exploiting the labor and land of conquered peoples to turn a profit back at home. Today, what is exported, for profits, are not only the goods but the labor force. No wonder there are so many unhappy campers in the labor class who are now following a billionaire madman called Trump who has promised theme the moon in the well and is soon to be their president, and alas, my president too. From Rand’s and Ryan’s perspective, such exploitation was perfectly justified, since indigenous populations are not made up of free individuals, having no concept of rights or property ownership. Nor does Gaia or any of Her non-human creatures deserve the respect of properly rational individuals, since, following Lockean theories of property ownership, their value is inferior until produced for consumption in the human marketplace. The laws of the market seem to be opposed to the Laws of the Creator.
In short, the accumulation of wealth has come to replace Wisdom as the most important aspiration in human life. Money has become the source of all value and meaning. “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and money” says the wisdom of the Christian gospel. Not the beautification and celebration of Gaia and Her creatures in the Name of God, but the production and consumption of Her resources in the name of the dollar is now the normal, “the good” way of life. There is an ontological chasm separating questions of meaning and morality from those of mechanism and motion.
Let’s now take a brief look at pagan nature religions. Some see them as a protest against the modern separation of nature and the sacred, against the separation of matter from spirit, sometimes called “gnostic” religion. In nature religions, by contrast, nature is neither fallen nor a prison from which one needs to escape; it is perceived as both sacred and interconnected; it has intrinsic value apart from its utility as a resource for human beings. By interconnected they mean that our being is determined by our ecology, by the cultural environment shared with all other living beings. We are immersed in a web of life which is our true community. In contemporary politics this is the ideology or the underlying philosophy of the so called Green Parties. It is alleged that this awareness existed in ancient times, but has been all but forgotten within modernity.
The protest by ecosophists or nature religionists, supposedly has to do with the perceived disconnect of man from nature, leading to the de-sacralization of nature in thought and deed. Healing the rift, so the argument goes, will require a profound shift in our collective consciousness, a feat to be accomplished by the priests of this new religion. Some deep ecologists call it “the chthonic imperative” while some call it “the re-enhancement of the world,” and others call it “the realization of one’s ecological Self,” as distinguished from one’s “ego-self.” This reconnection with nature may take place through education, even academic education, or the ritual worship of Mother Earth, and other practices.
Some common attributes that can be listed as shared by most ancient and modern nature religions are: immanence or focus on this world and its embodied physical existence, focus on the immanent dimension of the sacred, its accessibility to all humans, the emphasis of experience over belief, on living in harmony in the natural world, on the teaching of spiritual truths found in natural cycles and nature processes, on the treatment of birth, death and sexuality as sacraments (the worship of Pan, the god of nature is another throwback), on relationship over mastery, on the tendency to ignore sacred texts and institutionalized religious hierarchies, on pantheism, on the affirmation of life in its totality, on Mother Earth as a goddess (Gaia), on deep ecology, on neo-animism and bio-regionalism, on eco-feminism, eco-psychology, eco-philosophy and eco-theology.
But despite all this, modern science continues to reorient humanity’s understanding of and relation to earth and the larger universe by way of positivism. Only science has the “enlightened” answers to the problems of modern life. What is lost sight of is that those problems quite often were produced by an the abuses and extremisms of science that says that progress is inevitable and what comes at the end is always the best. It it? Look around.
The discoveries of modern science have fundamentally altered our conception of how the universe evolved thus far and how it will evolve in the future. Left unasked by the scientific perspective is the age old question of why the universe was created and why it continues to unfold creatively. Some assume that the universe is eternal and that in itself settles the matter. The very question asked by Heidegger in Being and Time (why is there something rather than nothing?) is meaningless. To be sure, the issue of the eternity of the universe preoccupied the likes of Aristotle and his medieval admirers Averroes and Aquinas, and is far from resolved philosophically.
Be that as it may, the ancients of Athens and Jerusalem and later Meso-America, perceived an eternal intelligence or Wisdom to be at work shaping the course of the visible cosmos. They believed her fruit was better than the choicest gold or silver. The universe could not have created itself and given itself a goal and an end. They sought a way of life in concert with this universal cosmic intelligence (nous) responsible for creating and sustaining all temporal things. Further, they assumed that their portrayal of an ordered cosmos helped to create one, and their liturgies somehow maintained it.
Moderns, in contrast, have become alienated from their origin in and forgetful of their responsibility toward the Wisdom of creation. Science, in the modern age, has lost sight of Wisdom and the moral vision she provides. There has been an attempt to replace philosophy, which literally means love of wisdom, with positivism or the idolization of the pre-eminence of science. Science has wed itself to the instrumentalism of market-driven technology, with an ever-accumulating body of specialized knowledge and the earthshaking power it makes possible. Even when mistakes are acknowledged, they are imputed to lack of precision, not lack of wisdom. Man-made models of nature have come to obscure modern humanity’s vision of the glory of creation. The Socratic “knowledge is virtue” has been replaced by the Baconian “knowledge is power.”
Economics, now considered a positive science and therefore beyond the pay grade of philosophers and theologians, was once defined as the science of morality. It stands today, rather awkwardly, at the helm of our techno-capitalist civilization. We now have, not philosopher-priests, but capital-engineers who rule over the contemporary geopolitical arena. The question arises here: is economic “science” just the purveyor of an oppressive upper class ideology? The answer may be yes, given that ecology, is widely dismissed by many conservatives as a front for socialism. Many dismiss global warming as socialist propaganda. The sense of the purpose of life has been banished from reasoned political discourse and has been replaced by tweeting and texting. We now have a tweeter, incapable of rational, wise, moderate common sense discourse, as president of the US. Next we will see democracy going down the toilet and good old fascism returning together with racism and xenophobia. The signs are there.
The founding fathers, children of the Enlightenment, must surely be turning in their graves. One prophet of this state of affairs was the poet William Blake who acutely perceived this chasm between the Wisdom of Creation wisdom and a modern extreme rationalism that has become a monster devouring its makers as a sort of dragon or Frankenstein monster.
Let’s now look at ecology, and consequently ecosophy, is another fundamental scientific reorientation, a revolution in self and cultural understanding that matches, if not exceeds, in importance the sixteenth-century Copernican astronomical revolution. Unfortunately, the influence of ecological science on public policy has been superficial, leading only to slightly more efficient light bulbs and hybrid gas-electric automobiles. So long as ecology remains narrowly scientific in the secular sense, concerned with how and not why, it can penetrate no deeper into humanity’s dysfunctional cosmo-political orientation. “Home,” in the individualized techno-capitalist context, means now my home or your home; Gaia–our home–has receded into the neglected background of human life.
To be sure, this eco-social crisis of our age has its roots in the rupture between religion and science, as well as liberal arts and science; especially the science of economics. In order to reunite the how with the why, humanity must remember its proper relation to creation and its Creator. Ecosophy, I would suggest, is the fruit of such memory, the wisdom of home that, when watered, grows as a great tree from the soil of every earthly soul. Ecosophy brings economics back to its roots in moral science and theology, and enchants ecological science so as to renew humanity’s connection to a living creation. But it cannot be just a resurgence of the paganism of old. The Christian religion is an especially important well to explore in relation to the contemporary eco-social crisis, since modern Western science and technology were born out of its cultural matrix.
Secularity, in other words, can itself be understood by a Christian as an inevitable moment in the historical unfolding of Christ’s incarnation, just as the Renaissance was. The Renaissance cannot be understood as a mere resurgence of Greco-Roman civilization. Without historically situating modern Western civilization in the context of Christianity, secularity is all too easily misunderstood and identified with being modern and progressive, which eventually become inevitable and whose denial puts one at risk of being branded a medieval obscurantist.
As radical a break with the past as it may appear to be, Enlightenment secularism is evidently not best characterized as the rise of individual rationality above commonly held myths, nor as the firm grasp of scientific truths and technological powers that can replace religious delusions and magical incantations. The evidence of the inadequacy of such a triumphant characterization of modernity is legion: the isolated modern consumer is ruled over by perhaps the most deceitful, destructive, and oppressive myth of all, the myth of the market as above examined via Rand and Greenspan.
Secular philosophy’s failure to engage the market-driven metaphysics of techno-capitalism for fear of trespassing into theology has allowed the “science” of capitalist economics to upstage the Wisdom of creation. Any hope of finding orientation in these chaotic times depends upon a renaissance of the poetic science as expressed philosophically by a Giambattista Vico. The human, as the imago dei, is tasked with the renewal and maintenance of the creation covenant. Genesis 1:28 calls us not so much to “subdue” and to “dominate,” but “to harness or to bind” heaven and earth, to “maintain the bonds of creation.” As the children of Wisdom, we are called upon by our Creator to be co-creators with Her in all our deeds and all our speech. To be made in the image of God is to be God’s poet, the namer and storyteller of creation.
So there are definitely two competing visions, that of the life of the market versus that of the miracle of life. The life of the market is that of ruthless competition, the struggle for existence between selfish animals, who come from dust and to dust return. The miracle of life is that of spiritual communion, the joy of co-creation amongst loving angels. The former is a morality rooted in the shallow pleasures of private accumulation, while the latter calls humanity to participate in the renewal of all creation.
The miracle of life can be understood through an ecosophic perception of the sacramentality of creation as a Theilard de Chardin or Thomas Berry understood it. Consider Gaia’s relationship with the Sun, that most generous of celestial beings. The Sun sacrifices its own body to give away vast quantities of energy to Gaia without any expectation of return. Not a single quantum of energy could be transacted between living beings upon the surface of earth without the Sun’s primordial generosity. This is as true of the monetary transactions of the human economy as it is of the ecological transactions of soil and plants. Life is a gift, not an earning, a celebration of divine surplus, not a competition amidst material scarcity.
Contrary to Rand’s racist ideology, the native populations of pre-conquest America understood the meaning of the Sun’s splendor deeply enough to ritually organize their lives on earth to reflect the same patterns it was performing in heaven. Extravagant potlatch celebrations were held in honor of births, weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. Natives would gather together for great feasts gifted by wealthy families, and to sing and dance in honor of their divine ancestors. These ceremonies provide evidence that not barter, as classical economists assume, but gifting was the earliest form of exchange. Potlatch celebrations were outlawed by both Canadian and US governments in the late 19th century, and remained so until 1951. As modernity unfolded, traditional sacraments were increasingly considered to be culturally constructed symbolic performances, rather than theurgic events opening an economy between creature and Creator. Skepticism of inherited norms and revealed truths steadily increased as individuals turned to their own reason and values for guidance concerning ultimate matters.
Weber famously argued that it was the downplaying of communal ritual among the Protestant laity that first made possible the disenchantment of the world, the formation of the private modern subject, and the subsequent rise of techno-scientific capitalism. God, even if not quite dead, had all but fled the realms of space and time. Free of the sacred places and liturgical calendars of traditional sacramental religion, the modern individual no longer mirrored the celestial economy of angels, but remade the earth in his own fallen image.
Reintroducing theologically grounded and ecologically sensitive morality into the norms of the marketplace will require an initially painful reorientation of modern human life, the crucifixion of the old to make way for the new. In order to come into alignment with the Wisdom of creation so as to participate in God’s ongoing artistry, everything from our scientific understanding of life and energy to the time-anxiety underlying our socio-economic commitment to work must be re-imagined.
In order to imagine, and to co-create, the Great Economy of the Kingdom, it is first necessary to free ourselves from the anxieties of the world of working. This, I submit, is best outlined in Franciscan spirituality which advocates enjoying and praising nature rather than the exploitation and the rape of nature. Anxiety makes the problems of the market apparent to us, but uncovering their solution requires that we release ourselves from its world-distorting grip. Unlike the anti-religion of the market ruling over the world of working, wherein “time is money” as Ben Franklin famously quipped, Christianity calls us to observe the birds of the air and the lilies of the field living without toil: “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” Time needs to be found to smell the roses.
Play, like the perception of Wisdom, opens up a non-ordinary reality, allowing us to transcend the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realities that are engaged with during a full 24-hour cycle of earth’s rotation (sleep, dreams, etc.), or the full span of a mortal life (birth, love, near death, death, spiritual vision, etc.). Work will always be necessary for survival, but the question remains: why survive? If not to play, then for what? We are back to the question of the purpose of the universe.
Ritual performance, and the creative efflorescence it encourages, is at the existential core of our lives, and indeed is the beating heart at the center of creation. We might sometimes reflect and recall that the purpose of all our science, technology, industry, manufacturing, commerce, and finance is celebration, planetary celebration. That is what moves the stars through the heavens and the earth through its seasons, as Dante intuits at the end of his journey in The Divine Comedy. The final norm of judgment concerning the success or failure of our technologies is the extent to which they enable us to participate more fully in this grand festival.
The meaning of the world and the order of the cosmos must be enacted, or imaginally bodied forth. The human imagination, the Seal of creation, does not receive the world’s meaning ready-made, but must participate in its making: The meaning of earthly life soon dissolves unless we are willing to play, to make imaginally present what would not otherwise be so. Imagination is the soul’s temple, the holy of holies within which immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. It needs to be added to rationality, so that one can live a full human life. In this way, everyday is made holy, and all our work becomes a form of worship. Religion, science, art, and indeed, culture in general, are all born out of playfulness. Humans may not be the only creatures who play, but surely only we take play seriously enough to die for it. Perhaps Socrates had something like that in mind when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Contrary to this vision of creation rooted in play, biologists since Darwin have tended to understand evolution primarily as a vicious competitive “struggle for existence” amidst scarcity, where only the fittest survive. Energy is not compulsive work, but “Eternal Delight.” Nor is God’s ongoing creative artistry tyrannical or compulsive, but Genesis’ acts of creation must be read in concert with the wisdom of Proverbs and the passion of the Gospels. God did not create the world out of nothing, but beget it and suffered it with Wisdom. Lacking such an ecosophic perception of the true nature of reality has left modern humanity ignorant of why Gaia is the way She is. This ignorance hardly stopped us from learning how many of Her seemingly isolated parts worked, and how we might manipulate them for our own profit. Cunning power became our knowledge conceived as power.
As a St. Francis clearly perceived, as a mystic with no academic degrees, the Great Economy is in our midst and it does not reside in accumulated wealth and knowledge. It resides in Wisdom which is also all around. If the heart be reached, not through reason, but through imagination, then healing humanity’s eco-social wound must begin there, with the heart and with the imagination. Enlightenment conceptions of the “state of nature” must be entirely re-envisioned, e.g., Gaia’s values becoming the soil out of which the human soul imagines its own values. To be made in the image of God is not merely to be capable of thinking His plan after Him, but to be co-creator with Christ of the Kingdom, on earth, as it is in heaven.
In conclusion, I wish to suggest that ecosophy should not be a mere throw-back to pagan “nature worship” as a way to reconnect to the sacred (fine in itself), but it should go beyond; it should be the culmination of a genuine Christian Franciscan spirituality which remembers God’s creation and through nature finds the way to a new imaginative journey such as the one begun by Dante “in the middle of the journey of our lives” which ends, in the last line of the Divine Comedy, with “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
2021 will be defined by the more long-term crisis facing humanity: Climate change
Rather than low-tech and often unworkable solutions (reduced or no travel, mass vegan diets) governments are increasingly embracing technology to help us understand and influence the climate – rather than merely respond to it. This should become the norm for public authorities across the world.
China’s weather modification programme, for example, could be a lifeline for workable solutions to climate change globally. The technique, known as cloud-seeding, uses silver iodide and liquid nitrogen to thicken water droplets in the cloud, leading to increased rain or snowfall.
The technology has been used to prevent droughts and regulate weather before major events, like in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The Chinese cabinet has announced that its weather modification programme will cover half the country by 2025, with the aim to revitalize rural regions, restore ecosystems, minimize losses from natural disasters and redistribute water throughout the country.
And China’s ambitious ‘Sky River’ programme could eventually divert 5 billion cubic meters of water annually across regions, which could protect millions of people from the effects of drought and water scarcity.
Although critics have, without evidence, described these projects as ‘weaponization of the weather’, the humanitarian and development potential is huge.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and this is truer than ever with regards to the climate. The world faces a climate-change induced water crisis, with 1.5 billion people affected globally.
The UN predicts that at the current water usage levels, water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030.
Carbon emissions are unlikely to be eliminated in high growth economies in regions like Asia, meaning that the world must develop a way to manage emissions’ effects on the climate.
Whilst it is true that the basic solutions of eating less meat, cycling to work and cutting back on international flights can help to curb our carbon output in the long-run, it does nothing to help those who suffer from flooding or water scarcity today.
Ultimately, technology is an essential part of the solution.
Big Tech is leading the charge in tackling climate change through the use of Big Data and machine learning. In November 2019, a group of data scientists published a paper entitled ‘Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning’. The paper laid out 13 different applications of using machine learning to tackle the impacts of climate change. One such application was using machine-learning to predict extreme weather events.
Such an application is already being put into action. For example, Bangladesh is one of the most flood-prone countries in the world; approximately 5 million people were negatively affected by flooding last year alone. In order to help combat this, Google teamed up with the Bangladesh Water Development Board and the Access to Information (a2i) Programme to develop a flood notification app that is approximately 90% accurate.
The app, which is enabled by AI flooding simulation, provides the population with timely, updated, and critical information that can help users make informed decisions on the safety of their families and friends.
The same technology has been used in both India and South Africa, and has the potential to save thousands of lives and livelihoods. It is these sorts of innovations that we must rely on to help those who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
It is not only cloud-seeding and weather prediction technologies that will provide humanity with a route out of its biggest existential threat. Breakthrough battery technology, green hydrogen, 5G-based smart grids and carbon-negative factories are set to become commonplace in our fight against rising CO2 levels.
As a global society, we must set our political divisions and some critics’ technophobia aside, and step forward in a spirit of international collaboration.
Similarly to how the pandemic showed the need for united global action, climate change will do the same. And just as technology and science was a key part in how the pandemic was brought under control, climate change can only be addressed through tech-based solutions.
The solution to marine plastic pollution is plural, and plastic offsetting is one of them
Due to growing concerns around environmental protection, businesses, individuals and governments have been looking for solutions that can be largely implemented to close the tap on plastic pollution.
In the last five years, businesses have strengthened their Sustainability Approach to acknowledge the need to take responsibility for their plastic production and consumption.
If targets have been defined and strong policies followed them to ensure high recycling rates of plastic products, a problem remains. What is the solution for low-value non-recyclable plastics?
This is where plastic offsetting enters the scene. As a derivative of the Carbon Offsetting concept, where trees are planted or protected to capture CO2 emissions, Plastic offsetting also known as Plastic Neutralization, enables companies to take responsibility for their plastic footprint.
Put simply, neutralizing means funding the collection and treatment of plastic, equivalent to the plastic impact of the business. Therefore, giving it the opportunity to compensate for every ton of plastic it has produced by ensuring there is one ton less in the environment.
From linear to Circular Economy Itis also a breakthrough in our traditional model of production, the linear economy. By extending the producer responsibility (EPR), this concept allow to build the bridge that lead to the ideal model, the circular economy, where no waste remains.
This innovative solution brings with it diverse positive impact. To the environment, by protecting ecosystems from plastic pollution, reducing landfilling and CO2 emissions. A strong social impact, by local communities by empowering local communities with work and better incomes. But also businesses, by becoming more sustainable with the reduction of the plastic footprint and a strengthen corporate social responsibility.
TONTOTON, a Vietnamese company, based in Ho Chi Minh City has succeed to connect all stakeholders to create a new market for low-value non-recyclable post-consumer plastic, on the scheme of circular economy.
TONTOTON Plastic Neutralization Program
Following the idea that the informal sector achieve to collect and recycle large amount of plastic in poor waste management areas, Barak Ekshtein, director of TONTOTON decided to look closer to the problem. In fact, a study shows that ‘97% of plastic bottles were collected by informal waste pickers.
The problem therefore does not lie in the logistics but in the price. By giving a market price to non-recyclable plastic, it allows waste collectors to collect and treat waste and thus avoid plastic pollution.
TONTOTON currently works in Southern Vietnamese Islands, Hon Son and Phu Quoc, and has already few tons of low-value plastic waste. To do so, it collaborates with local waste-pickers and thus provide them better incomes. The program focuses on preventing ocean plastic by following the Ocean Bound Plastic Certification. Their activities are audited by a 3rd party control body, the internationally recognized company, Control Union.
To treat the waste, TONTOTON partners with a certified cement plant, through co-processing, to valorize waste as an alternative energy and raw material. “Our system can solve two issues. Plastic is made of fossil fuels and contains more energy than coal. Thus we can replace industrial coal consumption with non-recyclable plastic waste. The plastic will not end up in landfill or oceans, therefore reduce levels of coal consumption and thus also CO2 emissions.”, says Barak Ekshtein.
Businesses engaged in their program can claim plastic neutrality on the amount of plastic neutralized to share their sustainability efforts. Moreover, indicate it on their neutralized product by bearing the “Plastic Neutral Product” label.
Climate Change in Vanuatu: Problems Ensue
Authors: Harsh Mahaseth and Shubham Sharma*
Vanuatu announced its intention to seek legal action against corporations and governments who have benefited from products which had caused climate change. Minister Regebvanu, in the 2018 Climate Vulnerable Summit sought to explore legal actions against companies, financial institutions and governments liable for the damages caused to Vanuatu due to climate change, either by direct to indirect actions of the said parties. Vanuatu, like other small island nations, is seeking damage claims against carbon emitters who have contributed to climate change and benefited from it. Vanuatu seeks to claim reparations for damage caused by events related to climate change such as the 2015 cyclone which wiped out an estimated 64 per cent of Vanuatu’s GDP.
A case of action against global polluters isn’t novel. Climate Change litigation has its precedence, with over 1300 cases having been filed across 28 countries, where various public and private entities have petitioned the Courts for environmental action or relief. The source of the litigation comes for various multilateral treaties, such as the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment, Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and others treaties combating pollution.
For Vanuatu, one of the major obstacle, other than the likely opposition from powerful States, includes finding a suitable forum; identifying relevant substantive obligations and various challenges relating to attribution, causation and evidence before they are able to make successful climate litigation before an international body such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), scholars have argued that a path for successful litigation exists through Article 36, paragraph 2 of the ICJ Statute, where by accepting compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJa case for prevention obligations under the lex special is of the UNFCCC, human rights law or customary international law.
Strategic Public Climate Litigation, an injunctive relief solution where the aim is to influence public policy or policy decisions primarily through the attainment of injunctive relief by asserting governmental failure to account for GHG emissions associated with public projects and cases of judicial review of public regulatory action (or inaction) on climate change, has already achieved some degree of success. An example would be the Australian Conservation Foundation et al. v. Minister for Planning where there were concerns with regards to GHG emissions of a new coal mine which lead a tribunal to determine the lasting significant environmental effects of the coal mine in the future would be against the objective of the act which is to “maintenance of ecological processes” and the “future interest of all Victorians.” Another example is that of the State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda Foundation, where an injunction was sought to compel the Dutch government to reduce GHG emissions, the supreme court of appeals, upheld this view and ordered the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 per cent by the end of 2020, compared with 1990 level.
The second option for Vanuatu is to cast a wide net of a variety of legal theories, such as domestic tort law against carbon majors similar to the petition brought before the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, which investigate the responsibility of 47 investor-owned carbon majors for human rights violations due to climate change. For this approach, the initial challenge Vanuatu faces is the lack of a national human rights institution who can bring rights violations caused by climate change. However, the lack of a human rights institution can be mitigated by Vanuatu’s independent judicial system, as it is competent to address claims for damage caused by climate change by the polluters. The major hurdle Vanuatu faces is establishing the causation between the defendants’ conduct and its result, which is to say whether the action of the defendant lead to or contributed to the disaster, and secondly, the ability to certain specific damage sorted by Vanuatu on the other, especially in cases of non-economic loss and damage.
The recent surge in climate change litigation bodes well for Vanuatu, as the establishing precedence only strengthens their claim for damages. However, Vanuatu still faces major obstacles. Firstly, a lack of an international body to address the issue. Even if a case is brought before the ICJ, it can only be against a Member State. Thus, action against private entities cannot be brought before the ICJ. Secondly, identifying the rights violated and then assessing and assigning the damage liability to individuals, entities and governments. Thirdly, if Vanuatu pursues action in domestic courts, there are issues relating to the appearance of the party to the summons and the ability of Vanuatu to enforce the judgment. As the primary means of compliance for offenders in the international area are sanctions, Vanuatu without support from larger nations wouldn’t be able to handout sanctions to force compliance. There are many problems that Vanuatu faces but they cannot sit still now, and it is time to act and make the polluters liable.
* Shubham Sharma is a graduate from NALSAR University of Law. He has worked on several research projects relating to human rights, juvenile justice, and climate change.
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