Skip navigation

It’s Time for Some New Representation

            Numerous examples highlight how current generations make decisions that produce short term benefits but disadvantage or harm future generations:  the production of green-house gases and nuclear energy waste, overfishing in international waters, unsustainable use of ground water, the accumulation of national debt and trade imbalances are just a few. The problem with these decisions is that human nature is inherently short sighted, hamstrung by an age of instant gratification. Hence, it is high time that future generations have their own representation in the legal and political spheres, to properly assert their interests and counterbalance the self-interest of present generation politicians and other lawmakers.

            The concept of a representative for future generation interests is not radical.  Various state and federal laws and state constitutions expressly mention protection of future generations. Among these are the constitutions of Hawaii, Illinois, and Montana, and the National Forest Management Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Federal Land Policy and Management Act.  Concepts within the legal system, like “future interests” in property law, implicate future generations.

            The United States is not the only country where the interests of future generations are integrated into the legal system.  Germany and Japan have laws that mention the importance of the environment and future generations. Germany has even gone so far as to incorporate the precautionary principle into its environmental laws.  Australia has also recently joined the community of states whose governments must consider the interest of future generations.

            Israel presents the most progressive commitment to future generations.  It established the Commission for Future Generations in 2001. The commission is an organ of the parliament and its focus is to provide a “comprehensive view of the legislative picture with regard to any potential negative effect on the needs and rights of future generations together with the means to prevent such legislation from taking place.” Parliament has also granted the commission the authority to advance bills that promote the interests of future generations. The Commission is encouraged to focus on various areas, including the environment, natural resources, education, health, quality of life, technology, and law.

            The U.S. should model an executive branch position along the lines of the Israeli Commission for Future generations. The U.S. executive branch has an agency or commission for almost every social problem, with some focusing specifically on the environment and others on preserving history for future generations, including the Environmental Protection Agency,  Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and  American Battle Monuments Commission, among others. It would not be a significant leap to combine the interests of preserving American heritage for future generations and the concern for protecting the environment, so that an agency could focus on preserving the environment for future generations.

            It is extremely important that there is some public body that recognizes the problems future generations will face and advocate for them in the U.S. Congress. Members of congress are elected, and as such, are beholden to their geographically and temporally limited constituency. If politicians started talking about sacrificing the current constituency’s quality for life for the benefit of future generations, they would have a hard time winning an election (except for in the most progressive of districts). The U.S. should not settle for just a political solution to the underrepresentation of future interests though.

            The U.S. should actually go a step further than Israel and create a mechanism for future generations to be represented in judicial proceedings. The American legal system already has one way for establishing legal representation of individuals not able to competently represent themselves in court—guardian ad litem.  The U.S. legal system also allows for class action lawsuits, where a few plaintiffs can represent an entire class of persons.  It would not be difficult to combine these two mechanisms in order to allow a guardian ad litem for future generations to sue or intervene in suits concerning environmental impacts on future generations. In fact, Macchia is an example of a case where the court allowed for citizens to pursue a citizen suit on behalf of future generations alleging a violation of NEPA (329 F. Supp. 504). There, the court allowed the plaintiffs to sue as a class and on behalf of future generations in order to enjoin the dredging and development of an island off the coast of New Jersey.  In Environmental Change and International Law: New Challenges and Dimensions, Edith Brown Weiss also points out that the 1986 Superfund Amendments to CERCLA require federal and state governments to appoint “natural resource trustees” who will bring claims for damages to natural resources from oil and hazardous substances.

            As one can observe, there are various examples in the U.S. where the actual representation of future generations is but a few small steps away. One can also see how other countries have put into place protection and representation of future generations. Given the increasingly perilous environmental concerns we are going to pass on to future generations, the long shelf-life for many pollutants—particularly green-house gases—and future generation’s inherent lack of political capital, it is imperative that the U.S. provide some sort of legal protection or representation to future generations in order to preserve their basic human rights.

The European Union’s Climate Action Plan: A Golden Opportunity to Create Meaningful Climate Change Policy

The European Union (EU) has recently taken the lead on combating climate change. On March 14th, EU leaders agreed to finalize their Climate Action Plan (CAP) by next year. The CAP is a set of policy proposals released in January, which aim to meet the EU’s two goals for emissions reductions:

1. an EU commitment to achieve at least a 20% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020 compared to 1990 levels and an objective for a 30% reduction by 2020 subject to the conclusion of a comprehensive international climate change agreement, and

2. a mandatory EU target of 20% renewable energy by 2020 including a 10 % biofuels target

At a two-day summit held March 11th and 12th, leaders from the EU Member States agreed that legally binding legislation governing Europe’s climate change policy would be very beneficial. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, chairman of the summit, stated that this commitment to finalize negotiations by the end of the year was a huge step forward.” This agreement between Member States is important because it is indicative of the strong level of commitment to treating climate change as a real and serious concern.

But the EU’s decision to create an ambitious, uniform climate change policy is not just important as a symbolic act, it is also important because of what it can accomplish. This is because of the nature of the CAP and its timing. The EU is attempting to put a policy in place before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks in Copenhagen in November 2009. This is the meeting where the post-Kyoto emissions standards will be created. By finalizing the provisions of the CAP by the end of next year, the EU will be in a strong position to set the international standard at this meeting. A strong European CAP would demonstrate to other countries, such as India and China, that a substantial and sincere commitment to combating global climate change is possible, despite criticism from industrial and public utility sectors that such a policy is too costly.

The European Union has a great opportunity to make its CAP an example of progressive climate change policy which can be acknowledged and built upon by other nations at the Copenhagen talks. The agreement that the plan will be finished in time for these talks is encouraging. But the impact of the Europe’s climate policy at Copenhagen is not dependent on its completion date, but on its content. Negotiations on the specific proposals of the CAP will be debated for the next year. This is an ample of amount of time for Member States opposing the CAP in whole or in part to push for compromises lessening the economic burden on industries and thus weakening the impact the plan would have on combating global climate change. The CAP is based on four proposals:

1.an improved emissions trading system (ETS) covering more emissions and allowing firms in one EU country to buy allowances in any other;

2.an emission reduction target for industries not covered by the ETS (e.g. buildings, transport, waste) so that everyone is contributing;

3.legally enforceable targets for increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix – the targets will reflect each country’s individual needs and its potential;

4. new rules on carbon capture and storage and on environmental subsidies.

These proposals, in their general form, are not particularly controversial. But these proposals supply only the EU Commission’s basic strategy for accomplishing its emission reduction goals. The controversy is in the details. For instance, regarding the revisions to the ETS, the Commission has proposed that auctioning of emissions credits will be subject to common EU rules, not the rules of specific nations. Inevitably some nations will support the EU’s allocation of emissions credits, while some will vehemently oppose it. Under the EU rules, the power sector will be subject to auctioning beginning in 2013. Nations in the EU block that would have imposed little or no environmental regulation on its own power sector will obviously oppose the Commission’s plan. The same scenario is true with each of the CAP’s specific proposals-some nations will win and some will lose.

The critical inquiry is whether the nations who will lose economically from the CAP will have enough political clout to weaken its biting impact through compromises and exceptions. To mitigate the effects of climate change the world needs a powerful, comprehensive, international agreement from the Copenhagen talks. The EU’s recent proposed action plan and commitment to its finalization before Copenhagen are encouraging signs that Europe understands and accepts the undeniable truth that the quality of the world’s future will be decided by present climate change policy. With so much at stake, will Europe actually create meaningful climate change policy? A year’s time will tell.

Vermont Aims to Protect Environmental Legacy for Future Generations

Webster’s Dictionary defines “legacy” as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” When we think of the personal or family legacy that we leave for our children and our children’s children—such as property, a sum of money, or family heirlooms—we often see individuals endeavoring to protect that “legacy” so that it is in good condition when it is passed down from generation to generation. This is often done through a trust.

A trust is a legal arrangement in which legal ownership of an asset is transferred to a person or entity, known as the “trustee,” who is then responsible for managing the assets in the trust for the future benefit of another person or group, known as the “beneficiaries.” The trustees must manage the property held in trust for the benefit of the beneficiaries in accordance with the terms set up by the settlor (the one who created the trust for the property to be protected). For instance, the settlor can designate what can be done with the property, how it can be handled and used by the beneficiaries, and how long the property is to be held in trust. Because trusts are flexible and allow the settlor to specifically designate the terms of the trust to their liking, they have been referred to as “the best method as far as the protection of family assets is concerned.”

While trusts are most often used for private purposes, the concept can and arguably should be utilized to protect the environmental and natural resource legacy that present generations will pass on to future generations. These trusts are legislatively formed and protect assets that belong to the public, so they are known as “public trusts,” rather than private.

            One of the most cited examples of the use of a “public trust” is the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF). The APF is a constitutionally established fund, managed by a semi-independent corporation in Alaska, created in 1976. A portion of all mineral (oil and gas) proceeds received by the state is deposited into the fund for the purpose, among others, of “conserving a portion of the state’s revenue from mineral resources to benefit all generations of Alaskans.” The fund is managed by a board of trustees according to legislative guidelines so that current and future generations can reap the benefits of the state’s oil wealth. Each Alaskan citizen receives an annual dividend that comes out of the fund. In 2007, each citizen received a $1,654 dividend check simply for living in the state.

While the APF does place the state’s natural resources in a trust for the benefit of future generations, it is really about making the money last for future generations rather than the natural resource itself. In order to really protect the environment and natural resources so that they can be passed onto future generations as a well-kept legacy, the environment or natural resource itself—rather than just the money that comes in from depletion—needs to be placed in a trust. A group of senators in Vermont are trying to do just that.

            Senate Bill 0044, introduced by Senator Hinda Miller in January 2007, would create the Vermont Common Assets Trust. The trust would be used to “protect certain common assets (such as air and water) for the benefit of present and future generations.” In short, the common assets of the state would be placed in a trust that would be managed by a board of trustees, fees would be assessed for the use of those common assets, and any proceeds generated from such usage would be placed into the Vermont Common Assets Trust Fund. Just like Alaska, every citizen of Vermont would receive an annual dividend out of the fund.

By placing the common assets in trust, rather than just the profit generated from their use, the board of trustees can manage the assets so that they can be used by current citizens in a way that will allow them to be satisfactorily passed down to future generations—in a condition that allows them to live in beautiful Vermont just as we have lived in beautiful Vermont.

For example, the air or atmosphere could be placed in the Common Assets Trust to protect against the harms of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. While Vermont has already signed onto the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI),which plans to place a cap-and-trade system on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants in the region, that initiative only covers two percent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the state. The Trust could catch the other 98% of CO2 emissions in the state (as well as other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming) by establishing clear limits on greenhouse gas emissions from all sources, charging emitters for their use of the atmosphere, and distributing the proceeds as dividends to Vermonters on a pro rata basis (as well as using the funds for other beneficial purposes). Like the RGGI, the Trust could set up a cap-and-trade system that would apply across the board, protecting Vermont’s common asset (the sky) so that it can be passed on to future generations.

Not only would trust help protect the atmosphere through direct regulation and management, it would also create incentives for Vermonters to make better use of these common assets. It would provide an economic incentive to emit less, because the more you emit the more you pay (eventually surpassing the amount you received back in dividend-form). Also, the trust would spur economic development in the state for energy conservation and alternative energy initiatives.

The amazing thing about this bill is that it represents a drastic departure from the approach that government has historically taken regarding common assets. Instead of business as usual, Vermont is trying to protect the natural legacy that will be left for future generations by placing the environment itself in a trust—just like many private citizens do when they want to protect property that will be passed down to their descendants in the future.

Despite this positive step, the bill does not seem to be picking up much momentum in the legislature. Since January 2007, when Senate Bill 0044 was introduced, it has not moved from the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs. The bill currently has seven co-sponsors.

I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

The concepts of discounting and the time value of money are not new. Anyone who takes a course in microeconomics or business will find the basic concept somewhere in their text around chapter two. Who can forget Wimpy’s famed quip, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today?” So how then has this economic concept found its way to the forefront of environmental discourse, especially around intergenerational equity and climate change?

To answer requires a brief explanation of the two economic terms implied in Mr. Wimpy’s hamburger deal. The time value of money is based on the premise that an individual prefers an amount of cash today rather than at any time in the future, assuming all else equal. This is because money today can be invested and earn a rate of return. For example an individual who deposit cash in a high yield savings account with a 4% interest rate will earn 4% each year, adding value to the principle. If instead the individual receives the same amount of money a year later, he or she will not have had the opportunity to earn 4% interest that year. Therefore, money in the future (even when paying for hamburgers) is worth less than money today.

But how much less is it worth? This calculation is called discounting. Discounting is defined as the process of finding the present value of an amount of money spent (cost) or received (benefit) in the future. This economic theory became a matter of interest when President Clinton signed Executive Order 12866, requiring federal agencies to analyze the costs and benefits of all rulemaking. The cost benefit analysis uses discounting to compare future costs and benefits in present value. Circular A-4, issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under President Bush, suggests default discount rates of 3% and 7%. But in the context of intergenerational discounting — discounting costs and benefits accrued to future generations — the Circular requires agencies to use a lower but positive rate. This is the heart of the debate between environmentalists and economists. A positive discount rate applied to the value of money over a long time period results in an arbitrarily low present value. This mathematical reality allows agencies to easily justify not spending money today to protect the rights of future generations.

Cass Sunstein and Arden Rowell illustrated this point in On Discounting Regulatory Benefits: Risk Money and Intergenerational Equity.1 Assume you value a human life at $8 million dollars and you must decide whether or not to choose a policy that will save 100 individuals in 100 years. If you use a discount rate of 10% one individual life saved in 100 years valued in present money value would only be worth $581. The federal agency would be justified to spend only $58,100 to save those 100 future lives.

This is where climate change fits into the discussion. Because the greatest costs of global warming will be felt in the distant future, policymakers must do this same type of analysis. Regulatory actions to address climate change today will benefit future generations more than present day American citizens. Given Sunstein and Rowell’s illustration, one can easily see that discounting becomes a menacing hurdle when searching for ways to protect future generations from climate change damages.

One strategy used to overcome this obstacle is to chip away at the economic theory underlying discounting. Another way is to look again to the language of the Executive Order which allows for modification to the benefit cost analysis. It does so by suggesting two approaches, either modifying the discount rate or supplementing the analysis with an explicit discussion of equity issues. This departure from a traditional cost benefit analysis, however, was rejected by the Fifth Circuit in Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA when it invalidated EPA’s ban on asbestos.2

The court concluded that the agency’s cost benefit analysis was arbitrary and capricious because it gave too much weight to the unquantifiable benefits of future health benefits and saved lives. We now know from subsequent jury awards that the value of this unquantifiable benefit is enormous — large enough to bankrupt the entire asbestos industry.

Another strategy is to realize that relying on cost benefit analysis for regulatory decisions is a policy choice3 in its own right. Once we realize it is a decision and not inevitable, it is possible to choose not to use it. The federal government has already done this in a variety of situations.
For instance, OMB chooses to automatically exclude Homeland Security regulations from cost benefit analysis. This is a policy choice to protect Americans against terrorism regardless of cost. Likewise OMB does not apply cost benefit analysis to agency rules that de-regulate. In contrast, OMB requires EPA to provide a benefit cost analysis for every rule promulgated after 1995. It is their policy to substitute their own monetary assessment for benefits the EPA has not quantified and to “work with the EPA to reduce uncertainties in those valuations.” (SOURCE)

The result is that Homeland Security does not have to justify its actions based on monetized values while EPA does. There is no logical policy distinction between not applying cost benefit analysis to decisions to regulate and not applying it to decisions not to regulate: a decision to stop regulating imposes costs and benefits on society just as a decision to regulate. The difference here is in one case the government decided yes and the other no.

Clearly discounting is not the issue. It is just an analytical tool, a useful element of a cost benefit analysis. While commentators can debate the theory of discounting and its application, tweaking the formula till it reveals the preferable policy decision, it is not entirely necessary. Once we realize that the government can and does forgo benefit cost analysis for certain rules, it becomes possible to imagine a different decision making regime — one that allows the present generation to contemplate rules that can and will protect future generations.

1. Cass Sunstein and Arden Rowell, On Discounting Regulatory Benefits: Risk Money and Intergenerational Equity, 74 U. Chi. L. Rev. 171,172 (2007).
2.
947 F.2d 1201 (5th Cir. 1991).
3. Frank Ackerman & Lisa Heinzerling, Pricing the Priceless: Cost-Benefit Analysis of Environmental Protection, 150 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1553, 1563 (2002).

Climate Change: A Race Between Education and Catastrophe

Since Mr. Gore’s film debut, public awareness of climate change has dramatically increased.  But how much do people actually know?  That winter might be milder next year?  More importantly, how much does the younger generation know?  There has not been a mandated environmental curriculum to empower younger generations since the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. While progress has been made to educate the overall public about the climate crisis the world is facing, we are failing to adequately prepare the next generation — the one most immediately affected.  In some extreme cases, we are even promoting their ignorance under the pretext of partisan political views.

Direct Effects of Climate Change on Children’s Health

            According to UNICEF, children suffer the brunt of natural disasters, disease, and malnutrition throughout the world. Further, climate change will only worsen their plight. Children will pay for climate change with their health and development, and too often, with their own lives.  According to the World Health Organization, climate change is responsible for almost three percent of worldwide diarrhea and six percent of malaria, diseases that disproportionately affect young children.  As rains decrease, crops and livestock suffer, which exposes children to starvation, diminished water supplies, and decreased hygiene.  Alizeta Ouedraogaa, a child from Burkina Faso, described the dramatic impact climate change has already had on her community:

For the community, it is even more serious…when the crops are bad, there is no money to spend. Every year, there is a food shortage. Children quit school because they cannot afford supplies and school fees, or because they have nothing to eat during the school day. Some of these children beg or steal; old people beg, too.  Girls sometimes have to prostitute themselves..and may end up with an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease.”

 

Similar problems are plaguing children in Nigeria, as Rasheeda describes:  “We here in our community are suffering from a lack of potable water.  Where safe water is available, it is too far away; most times we have to walk ten to fifteen minutes to places where we can access potable water.”

Recognizing the increasing number of pediatric diseases and developmental problems linked to climate change, the  American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are calling on all pediatricians to incorporate considerations of climate change’s health effects into their professional practice, including lifestyle practices, political advocacy, and most importantly, patient education.  According to the AAP, children are most vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change because of their physical, physiologic and cognitive immaturity. These consequences range from injury and death from extreme weather events and natural disasters to increases in climate-sensitive infectious diseases and in air pollution and heart-related illnesses.  Deaths from asthma, which is the most common chronic disease among children, are expected to increase by nearly twenty percent by 2016 unless urgent action is taken.   However, while the AAP’s dedication to children is commendable, we must do more. Young people must be informed about the dangers of climate change and its dramatic effects on their health, environment and future, as well as the solutions.

Educating Children on Climate Change


The decisions we make today have a significant impact on younger generations and the generations to come.  It is imperative we include today’s youth in the decisions we make as a nation and as a world.  Together we need to prepare a youth that this not only climate-change literate, but prepared to fight the battle.  Therefore, the Department of Education must mandate a comprehensive climate-change curriculum that can be incorporated into all grade and subject levels.

Currently, science mandates vary from state to state and it is dependent on individual teachers to incorporate climate change education into their curriculum.  Governmental agencies, such as the EPA and the DOE, as well as NGOs, have developed a plethora of educational climate change computer resources.  However, these resources depend on independent students and educators to find them and put them to use.  Last May, Senator Obama sponsored a bill to authorize the National Science Foundation to establish a Climate Change Education Program. Aside from being referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, action has yet to be taken.  This program would create a national information campaign to disseminate information on climate change, new technologies, and programs related to energy conservation, renewable energy, and greenhouse gas reduction.  Further, the Climate Change Foundation will create education materials relevant to climate change and climate science, develop K-12 curriculum, and publish climate change and climate science information in print, electronic, and audio-visual forms. 

More than forty-six percent of the world’s population is younger the twenty five years old. They are the next generation of environmental stewards and the more they know today, the more positive influence they can have on our world tomorrow. Education has consistently been the most effective way to empower young generations to take responsibility for their own health.  For example, in its first two years that Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids used the Truth Campaign, smoking rates declined by 1.5 %, or 300,000 fewer youth smokers.  While the younger generation will feel the effects of climate change, we do not need to leave them un-armed to continue the battle.  Not only will educating children engage them in the global and local realties of climate change, but it will create a sense of empowerment at a young age.  As H.G. Wells so eloquently wrote in 1920, “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”  Let’s hope education wins.

The “World’s Third Superpower” and You: The Real Solution to Global Warming

As a high school history student, I studied the abolition of slavery, the progressive era, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement with both excitement and envy. I perused primary sources to better understand the opinions, emotions, and sense of righteousness these citizens shared and experienced. I remember the abolitionist leader and former slave Olaudah Equiano’s narrative arguing that abolitionists be “named with praise and honor, [those] who generously proposed and stood forth in the cause of humanity, liberty, and good policy; and brought to the ear of the legislature designs worthy of royal patronage and adoption.” In the same vein, I wanted my life to be “named with praise and honor” for helping secure comparable justice. By participating in a momentous social movement, I believed my life would reflect meaning and purpose and perhaps, as an added bonus, come to occupy a page of history itself.

Social movements are a direct response to failed democracy. When democratic governments turn a deaf ear to citizen concerns and desires, movements consolidate these concerns and then turn up the volume. Past social movements in the United States utilized a two-step process: people adopted a moral cause and then built a movement to educate the public. For example, the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s first underscored the moral failings of segregation and inequality and demanded liberty and justice for all. Second, barber shops, beauty parlors, and churches served as the movement’s informational hub, spreading news and sparking activism. Leaders and activists left them prepared to educate the rest of the country. The civil rights movement swept the nation, creating a much healthier American democracy with the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Fast forward to the 21st century, where climate change threatens all we know and love. From socio-economic impacts to complete loss of life and culture, we stand at a unique moment in history. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that the “[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.” Estimates for the cumulative economic impact of rising sea levels, more frequent hurricanes and droughts, higher rates of infectious diseases, and other climate caused effects are in the trillions of dollars. More importantly, global warming will displace millions of people leading to increased warfare, suffering, and ultimate death.

Global warming offers a distinctive challenge to the social movement paradigm. Although Americans widely recognize that global warming exists, they view the repercussions as distant and removed: few care about the potential flooding of Indonesian archipelagos in fifty years, while many care about health care and the Iraq War today. Yet major U.S. newspapers carry weekly stories on local, current impacts—from threatened maple trees in Vermont to wildfires in Colorado and hurricanes in Louisiana. To move beyond climate change cognizance to action, people must be engaged in their individual communities, via families, schools, religious institutions, colleagues, and clubs. In this way, citizens move the discussion from global warming is coming, to it’s here and what do we do now.

Given the present failure of government to address global warming, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play an important role in connecting individual citizen advocacy with meaningful government response. Not only are NGOs composed of and directed by citizens like you and me, but years of experience allow them to efficiently organize and educate on a massive scale. NGOs like Greenpeace, Climate Action Network, Environmental Defense, and Natural Resources Defense Council educate the global citizenry about climate change and its consequences. They petition governments for policy change as well as challenge judicial decisions and administrative rulemakings. Asha-Rose Migiro, Deputy-Secretary General of the UN, stated that the “United Nations depends upon the advocacy skills, creative resources and grass-roots reach of civil society organizations in all our work.” Today, NGOs have become “the world’s third superpower.”

In the face of government inaction, Australia provides an example of individuals and NGOs working together on progressive climate policy. Although Australia exports the largest amount of coal in the world and joined the U.S. in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, record drought and its toll on the agricultural sector—particularly cotton exports—raised Australian concern over global warming. As drought forced farmers off their lands and into cities, people sympathized with the plight of the agricultural sector. As education and awareness grew, people questioned the impacts of global warming on Australia’s ecology and lifestyle—from the current drought to Great Barrier Reef destruction and the spread of disease.

The Queensland Conservation Council responded to public opinion by pressing both the government and the courts for greenhouse gas mitigation. This massive turn in public perception ultimately led to a political reevaluation of Australia’s climate change position. In fact, the Australian federal election in November 2007 marked the world’s first climate change election. Not only did the victorious party offer the strongest climate policy, but the entering prime minister’s first action was to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Australia’s climate change movement progressed from individual and NGO action to an eventual political response.

There is no reason why we cannot do this in the United States. After we engage in civil society and stress regional climate implications, U.S. NGOs will provide the next link by consolidating our voice and directing it at influential decision makers. Step It Up, for example, organized the first open source, web-based day of action devoted to stopping climate change. In April of 2007, more than 1,400 communities across the U.S. joined force to offer the following explicit message: “Step It Up, Congress: Cut Carbon 80% by 2050.” Not only does Step It Up bring together individual voices, but it also works with other organizations like 1Sky to further centralize the global warming movement. Through mobilizing Americans around the climate change crisis, U.S. NGOs can help build enough political will to deliver real, meaningful, long term solutions.

Just like Olaudah Equiano chose between enjoying his newly won freedom or devoting his life to the abolitionist movement, people today must choose between two divergent paths. One path allows us to sit back, place our feet on the couch, and adopt a business as usual approach as the mercury continues to rise. The other path allows us to join an already growing social movement by taking action to stabilize and then reverse greenhouse gas emissions. Because the world’s fate rests in our hands, choose wisely— not just for your sake, but for that of your children and future generations!

What Happens When Home is Where the Heart of the Storm Is?

Almost two and a half years ago, “the most anticipated disaster” in U.S. history tore through Louisiana and Mississippi. Despite the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) warning that New Orleans was one of the U.S. cities most susceptible to natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina resulted in the displacement of over half a million people. Still today, thousands of those who fled Hurricane Katrina remain unable to return to their homes in the Gulf Coast Region. While the displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina is devastating, the level of displacement that occurs in developing countries is even more serious given that these countries are even less equipped to prepare for and respond to natural disasters and the resulting displacement. Yet natural disasters resulting from climate change are more apt to strike developing countries than the better positioned developed countries.

Natural disasters are the leading cause of displacement and resulted in the migration of over 25 million persons from their homes by 1995. For example, in the African Sahel, five of the ten million persons displaced due to severe drought were unable to return home. In Burma, the responses to climate change create 105 million displaced persons at any given time. In addition, desertification in Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya results in the loss of more than one thousand square kilometers of valuable land each year. As the environment continues to deteriorate due to climate change, the number of natural disasters such as drought, flooding, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, and violent weather disturbances will continue to increase in quantity as well as severity, which will result in even more environment-induced migration.

The vast number of persons displaced by the environment has led to the creation of a new term: environmentally displaced persons (EDPs). Some academics refer to EDPs as environmental refugees, but this is a misnomer since EDPs do not fit neatly under the international definition of refugee. For example, because EDPs often remain within their home countries, they do not qualify as refugees. Even those who are forced out of their home country by environmental degradation struggle to be classified as persecuted, again excluding them from refugee classification.

The large number of EDPs poses a major concern: where will they go? Currently, no country recognizes climate change as an acceptable immigration status. Several articles suggest that New Zealand has such an agreement with Tuvalu—an island nation that statistics predict will be completely submerged within the next 40 years. New Zealand, however, has given an official statement declaring that such suggestions are mere rumors. While the United States does provide Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to natural disaster victims, it is limited in application and scope. TPS only applies to applicants from a foreign state that has officially requested recognition as temporarily inadequate to provide its nationals with a safe return and that state temporarily cannot provide the applicant with a safe return. Even the 2.6 million EDPs affected by the 2004 tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in India and Pakistan did not receive protection under TPS. Overall, the United States and other developed countries continue to take similar steps to further limit the flow of immigrants coming from developing countries, regardless of their reason for immigrating.

Still, when the storm hits or farmland no longer bears fruit, those affected must seek life anew. Since the developed countries have such strict restrictions on immigration, the majority of EDPs are forced to leave their homes for refuge in countries without the resources to prevent their entrance. Many EDPs, therefore, attempt to rebuild their lives in communities with a cash income of $1 per day or less.

An additional concern that results from the colossal number of EDPs is the further destruction to the environment caused by mass migration. An increase in population necessitates an increase in housing facilities and means an increase in human waste and pollution as well as deforestation and wetland destruction. Host countries often are not prepared or are unable to provide for EDPs, leaving them to fend for themselves and exploit the already scarce natural resources. The host country’s meager natural resources must then stretch even further, often to the point of unsustainability.

When natural resources become scarce and survival is difficult, social and political conflict often follows. Academics now, at least partially, attribute the conflict in Darfur to the decline in soil quality. It resulted from the atypical weather patterns caused by climate change and corresponding changes in the migration patterns of pastoralists. Conflict, then, also leads to further destruction to the environment because fighting results in further deforestation, pollution, and degradation of water sources and further displacement. Climate change therefore generates a vicious cycle.

Even though developed countries are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore climate change, currently developing countries take the hardest hit from climate change’s effects and those of accommodating EDPs. Still, every nation is affected by climate change and with each hit these effects come closer and closer to home—whether that home is in a developing or developed nation. For example, the addition of 1.4 million displaced persons in Bamako, Mali, which eventually led to a subsequent migration to England, brought threats to national security and the spread of HIV and other diseases.

It is important to the safety of both developing and developed nations, therefore, that those now able to take action toward resolving these issues do so. Making changes could reduce the degree of unsustainable land, alleviate the burden of EDPs on developing nations, eliminate the unnecessary destruction of land, and reduce the environmentally induced migration of persons and the diseases they may carry. Taking action now could stop this vicious cycle, saving homes in both developed and developing nations today and in the future. Achieving this intragenerational justice is a pivotal step in ensuring intergenerational justice so that future generations have an opportunity to have a home—one where the heart is but the heart of a storm is not.

U.N. Climate Change Convention in Bali Hopes to Spur U.S. Involvement in a Post-Kyoto Climate Change Regime

From December 3–14, 2007, more than 10,000 participants representing over130 nations will come together on the island of Bali, Indonesia—the “Island of the Gods”—for the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference marks the thirteenth conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which the United States is a party to, and the third meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States has chosen not to ratify.

According to the United Nations, the main goal of the conference is to deliver a “necessary breakthrough” and begin “negotiations on a new international climate agreement” that will replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012. While the conference is not aimed at delivering a fully negotiated and agreed upon climate plan, it is hoped that the Parties will agree on the key strategies and areas that the new agreement will cover, such as mitigation, adaptation, technology and financing. The United Nations is also pushing for the parties to agree to a 2009 deadline for ending negotiations so that the new climate change deal can be ratified by 2012, avoiding a gap after Kyoto.

The conference comes on the heals of the September 17 release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fourth assessment report, which is a synthesis of three previous working group sections that were released between January and April of this year. The first section dealt with climate trends, the second dealt with the world’s ability to adapt to global warming, and the third examined strategies for reducing global carbon emissions. When the IPCC released this synthesis report, the scientists concluded that the evidence was “more explicit,” created “new emphasis and alarm,” and placed “the reality of human-induced global warming beyond any doubt” (in case there were any out there still questioning the already overwhelming evidence). Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the IPCC, stated: “If there is no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two or three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” While the scientific community has again spoken on the urgency of the problem, the biggest hurdle is getting the political community to come together in agreement as well.

The United States’ refusal to ratify Kyoto, or agree to any domestic or international plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat global warming, is something that the United Nations hopes will begin to change in Bali. The UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Yvo de Boer, has called on the United States to play a “more constructive role” in the international scheme. De Boer is also looking to “re-engage” Australia and “more strongly engage major developing nations,” such as Brazil, India, and China (which is set to replace the U.S. as the largest greenhouse gas emitter this year, if it hasn’t already).

Fortunately, one of these nations seems to be answering the call. Australia elected a new prime minister this week, Kevin Rudd, who has promised to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, plans to sign on to Kyoto (or its successor), and will attend the Bali conference. Rudd has even spoken to Al Gore, who will also attend the conference, about what needs to be done globally regarding climate change. With Australia planning to ratify Kyoto, the United States is now the only industrialized nation to refuse to join the international effort.

While this has not brought about any drastic (Australia-like) policy changes in the U.S., the Bush Administration does seem to be getting on board, albeit slowly. The Administration’s reaction to the IPCC report, delivered by the chairman of the president’s Council on Environmental Quality, James L. Connaughton, was that the President agrees that “the issue warrants urgent action, and we need to bring forward in a more accelerated way the technologies that will make a lasting solution possible.” The Administration has also decided to send a U.S. delegation to the Bali conference, led by Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Dr. Paula Dobriansky and joined by Connaughton and several others. The White House released a statement last week announcing that “[t]he United States is committed to advancing negotiations in Bali, leading to a new international approach on energy security and climate change.” This is not a definitive promise to join a post-Kyoto regime or substantially reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, but it clearly indicates that the Administration isn’t digging its heels in anymore or focusing on scientific controversy.

While the U.S. has acknowledged the problem and seems to be ready to cooperate, the world needs action, not lip service. The United Nations and the rest of the world hope that the United States will prove that they are on board in Bali, but no one is hiding the fact that these changes will not come easily and will be met with a certain amount of resistance. Secretary de Boer acknowledged that it will “take time” to convince America to join any future climate change regimes, but the hope is that the U.S. will at least commit to working towards a post-2012 agreement.

While the outlook painted by the IPCC is grim, the door has not closed, and the world has an opportunity to work towards saving Mother Earth—or “Ibu Pertiwi” as it is called in Balinese—from some of the future impacts and repercussions of climate change in Bali. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who will be welcoming the thousands of conference participants to his nation, has stressed that the Bali conference is an important “opportunity to assure present and future generations that their prospects would not be dimmed by climate change.” Only time will tell, and all eyes will be on Bali over the next few weeks to see if thousands of members of the current generations can move towards change that will benefit the earth’s future generations.

STOP GLOBAL WARMING, BUT DON’T LEAVE ANYBODY BEHIND

    The harms of global warming will affect individuals in every economic class in the United States, both in the present and future generations.  Those in the lower-economic class, however, will be the hardest hit.  In the struggle to implement programs for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is important that current generation, low-income individuals do not become incidental casualties.  Some ideas to reduce greenhouse gases have already produced adverse, unintended consequences for low-income individuals.  Given that shouldering the extra costs of combating climate change will fall disproportionately on the current generation of low-income individuals, it also may potentially increase poverty for future generations and make chronic poverty that much  more difficult to escape.  In addition, when climate change initiatives make life more difficult for low-income individuals, they may become disenfranchised with the “cause” of limiting greenhouse gas emissions to prevent harms to future generations. Thus, it is imperative to acknowledge and alleviate the potential negative, unintended consequences of reducing greenhouse gas emissions on low-income individuals.

     The compact fluorescent bulb (CFL) program included in a bill proposed by California Assemblyman Lloyd Levine points out the potential for incidental, adverse impacts on low-income individuals.  The bill would phase out the sale of incandescent light bulbs by 2012 and require that Californians buy either CFLs or light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs.  Because CFLs and LEDs are more energy efficient and have such a long life span, consumers can save up to $62. But a CFL can cost up to $3 while an incandescent bulb costs as little as $.69, so despite the long term energy and monetary savings, low-income individuals who conduct their lives according to each paycheck and have little money to spare may choose to buy the more expensive light bulb.  Some have recognized this problem and tried to subsidize the cost of CFLs or just provide them free to low-income individuals. These programs have a dual benefit of reducing greenhouse gases and getting low-income individuals involved in the “cause” of combatting climate change.

     The increased used of bio-fuels, particularly ethanol, provides another example of society trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but failing to foresee the impacts on low-income individuals.  The federal government has provided huge subsidies to farmers in order to encourage more corn production to supply the increasing demand of ethanol. This has not only led to an increase in corn prices, but also caused the price of grains to rise as farmers switch from grains to corn; thus, the government’s greenhouse gas reduction program has indirectly reduced the supply of grains, thereby making basic food products more expensive for low-income individuals. The rising food costs will aggravate the conditions of already impoverished people, do little to end the problem of chronic poverty, and potentially lead to more low-income individuals in future generations who will suffer disproportionately from global warming’s harms.

     Yet reducing greenhouse gases and poverty can go hand in hand.  Several recent activities show that we can reduce greenhouse gases while improving the lives of low-income individuals. Improving energy efficiency in low-income homes is one example. Numerous programs provide support to low-income persons to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.  These programs not only reduce energy usage and attendant greenhouse gas emissions, but also utility costs, thereby saving low-income households money.  A carbon tax on industry is another example. While the tax will raise the price of energy and energy-related products and services, the government could use the revenue generated from the tax (up to $300 billion) to assist low-income individuals in obtaining the products and services.

      The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California, provides another example of combining the goals of reducing greenhouse gases and poverty while involving low-income individuals in the “cause.”  The Center’s main program provides training for “green-collar” jobs to low-income neighborhoods. Given the current focus on making more buildings energy-efficient, there is an increased demand for manual labor to install solar panels, insulation, and other weatherizing materials. By providing “green-collar” job training, the Ella Baker Center’s program illustrates how low-income individuals could become one of the beneficiaries of a greener America.  It also shows a way for encouraging low-income individuals to become more involved in addressing the problem of climate change. Thus, the program is win-win-win (for those of you who watch The Office on NBC!), since the program reduces greenhouse gases, alleviates poverty, and encourages low-income individuals to get involved in the “cause.”

     The environmental movement’s focus on reducing greenhouse gases is laudable, but the movement must acknowledge and limit the adverse, unintended consequences of potential solutions on low-income individuals. The CLI’s focus on the duties of current generations to future generations is also important in order to bring the issue of intergenerational justice to the forefront of the climate change debate. However, the alleviation of chronic poverty is fundamental to ensure that the harms of global warming do not disproportionately affect future generation, low-income individuals.  Programs that strive to reduce greenhouse gases while alleviating poverty not only provide a benefit to current generations, but will also provide an ever increasing benefit to future generations as more low-income individuals become involved in the climate change “cause.”  Hence, it is imperative that the actions taken to reduce the harms of global warming to future generations are not taken at the expense of those of lower incomes in the current generation.

The Hypocrisy of Nations “Leading the Charge” Against Climate Change

“Hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing.

Edmund Burke

If you have seen the news lately, you know that global climate change is getting more attention than ever before. You probably also know that national governments around the world say they are taking serious action to solve this problem. Among these nations are Britain and Russia. In Britain, Prime Minister Brown recently stated that the UK government was looking at the possibility that its target of a 60% cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 was “not ambitious enough.” Russia, as a party to the Kyoto Protocol since early 2005, continues to work to reduce its carbon emissions and has prepared a list of emissions sources and a register of emissions reductions. But are these countries, as significant emitters of carbon, really acting faithfully to their stated goals of combating climate change?

On October 17th, 2007 the BBC reported that Britain is going forward with its claim to sovereign control over one million more square kilometers of Antarctic waters, to gain access to the oil reserves below. The report states that this claim is legal under controlling international law, namely the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of December 10, (UNCLOS III)1982, and the environmental provisions added to the The Antarctic Treaty of 1991. Although the British government says that it knows that any present exploitation of natural resources would violate these treaties, this land grab, at its core, calls into question this nation’s true commitment to exceeding its Kyoto carbon reduction goal. The message here is “we will do our best to combat global climate change, but in the mean time hedge our bets and find more oil.”

The message is being sent by Russia as well, which in July 2007 sent a submarine to the Lomonosov Ridge, the deep seabed under the Arctic Ocean which spans 460,000 square miles. The purpose of this expedition was to prove scientifically that the territory — and the 5 billion metric tons of oil thought to be located there – is part of Russia’s continental shelf under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of December 10, 1982, Part VI. This provision states that “the coastal State exercises over the continental shelf sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources.”

Although the steps Britain and Russia have taken to appropriate areas of the deep seabed are likely to be legal under controlling international law, it seems that these steps are deeply hypocritical, given these nations’ respective stated policy goals of reducing fossil fuel emissions. Certainly Britain and Russia have violated the spirit of the law and the Common Heritage of Mankind (CHM) principle on which UNCLOS III and the Antarctic Treaty are based. The CHM principle is a principle of international law written into treaties controlling common heritage regions, such as outer space, or those controlling property thought to be held in common for the good of all mankind, such as the DNA sequencing models from the Human Genome Project. The CHM principle prevents any one nation or private party from appropriating common heritage areas or common heritage property; it also directs that benefits derived from these areas or property be shared equally. Moreover, the CHM principle requires preservation of these areas or property for future generations, and using them only for peaceful purposes. The CHM principle incorporates elements that will likely be essential to combating global climate change.

The steps that Britain and Russia have taken to appropriate the deep seabed for oil extraction run contrary to the CHM principle. When one observes these actions, it is then difficult to keep faith with these nations’ stated goals for carbon reduction. The stakes of mishandling solutions to the climate change problem are too high for nations to engage in policy “double speak” The public must make the connection and see the hypocrisy of engaging in deep sea oil prospecting while pledging to combat global climate change. More fundamentally, increased public awareness of the CHM principle, as international law which encourages cooperation among nations in managing the commons for the benefit of all mankind and future generations, is needed. If someday this principle is applied to the atmosphere, nations will hopefully adhere to both the letter and spirit of international law protecting the atmosphere from destruction by fossil fuel emissions.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.