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  • Archive for the 'Harriet Bradley' Category

    The role of art in environmental activism: Interview with Dr. T.J. Demos

    By Olivia Robinson, on 25 September 2014

    By Harriet Bradley

    On the 26th March 2014 the Royal College of Art (RCA) held the last of their ‘Sustain Talks’ series, on ‘The Rights of Nature and the Nature of Value’, about how and why we value and protect the natural environment and what the implications are for environmental ethics and governance. Dr Demos, art historian and cultural theorist, UCL History of Art faculty, spoke about art’s role in environmental activism and conflict. The rest of the panel included author and policy director Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation and Global Witness and Polly Higgins, the international environmental lawyer and author of Eradicating Ecocide. I caught up with Dr Demos at UCL to elaborate more on the themes of political ecology, eco-aesthetics, Earth Law and what art and political science might have in common.

    Q: Could you explain the idea of the ecology of politics or political ecology?

    A: It’s a very complex term, one with which I’m very occupied in my current research on a new book on contemporary art and political ecology. On a basic level it’s a term that insists on reading ecology in a political way- so ecology isn’t simply about ‘green living’, or ‘green design’ in a way that doesn’t challenge some of the basic premises of the political, economic and social world that we live in. The term is used in the discourse of Bruno Latour, the French Science Studies scholar, who in his book Politics of Nature, talks about how we can’t allow decisions related to climate change or global warming or ecological crisis to be left to the ‘experts’ alone, whether that means scientists, or politicians working in policy, NGOs or organisations like the UN. In other words it’s a process of breaking down the hierarchies that exist today in relationship to the decision-making about the environment; so that the views of all citizens, all people, and in fact all life forms should be taken into account in what Latour calls a ‘new ecology of politics.’ It becomes very experimental and increasingly speculative the more you get into it – such as what does it mean for a non-human life to have a legal stake and to express a political view?

    Q: You’ve talked about Marxist approaches being influential, how do they interpret the global system and how does that relate to the environment?

    A: The development of ecological thinking within Marxism has been reanimated in the last decade or so, coming after a longstanding view that Marx and Marxists had very little interest in ecology- that they were much more interested in industrial development, labour and modernisation- as in the context of the Soviet Union. While Soviet ecology was certainly disastrous after the 1920s, there’s a lot of really interesting recent revisionary scholarship on Marx, like John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology. There are also others today working out of a critical framework in different fields, like Kevin Anderson, professor of Energy and Climate Change and Director of the Tyndall Energy Programme at Manchester, Chris Williams, an ‘eco-socialist’ coming out of science, and Richard Smith, a policy analyst, and Naomi Klein who’s an activist, among others who address ecology from a non-capitalist or post-capitalist position. But there’s a fundamental argument among such writers and speakers and activists that advanced capitalism is simply not really in a position to solve the problems that it has created; we have to think outside the automatic assumptions that we can only address the crises of ecology through market mechanisms.

    If you look back on the history of ‘green capitalism’ – of the process since the nineties where capitalism has increasingly started to take on board environmental imperatives in relationship to its ways of operating – that has really not led to any substantial reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, or destruction of the environment in general. So a growing number of people are now arguing that the only real way of approaching the problem is to question the fundamental tenets of capitalism – basically the ‘growth economy’ – the idea that we can address ecological crises through mechanisms like sustainable development. Which really has been a compromised discourse – putting together ecological imperatives with demands for the continual accumulation of profits and wealth. Sustainable development ultimately means the sustaining of economic development above all else and that’s the problem and that’s why it’s not getting anywhere.

    Q: What is the role of art in those debates, and specifically ‘eco-aesthetics’?

    A: For me, art is part of a wider realm of aesthetic experience- of the visual and auditory – that has certain political dimensions in terms of how appearance is organised and in terms of questions of what is worthy of reproduction, dissemination and publication in the wider sphere of media, including but not limited to art. These kinds of questions end up delimiting the spaces of what can be deemed important and newsworthy on the one hand and what is a non-starter or reduced to noise on the other. The politics of aesthetics has to do with questions of appearance and where appearance is taking place and how we can challenge that division of the sensible. The philosopher Jacques Rancière writes about this in interesting ways.

    Art is one mode within the larger sphere of aesthetics. It’s important to situate it in that larger context of things like new media, of governmental publicity, of scientific discourse, of filmmaking, of television. Eco-aesthetics proposes a way of understanding that realm of appearance where ecological discourse is addressed and processed in different ways. We shouldn’t reduce art to a kind of illustration of science which is the least interesting way of understanding what this category of practice is. Instead we should view it as a platform of interdisciplinarity, of collaborations, of experimental creative thinking. It’s a place where people can propose both criticisms of the present world order and its relationship to economic governance, social and political forces, and can also offer creative alternatives to those fields, through forms of ecological sustainability, or ways of living- in a radically democratic way, or according to non-capitalist exchange and an economy of sharing. Those are a variety of different and interesting ways that art can play a role in how we think about ecology and the ecological crises that we’re confronting.

    Q: What art have you looked at in East India?

    A: As you know, I’ve recently returned from a research trip to India, where there’s a long history of environmental destruction and ecological social movements, really going back to the time of early to mid twentieth century decolonisation. This was an important aspect to Ghandi: to develop a form of ecological independence against the forces of British colonialism and the foreign control of resources and production, which he contested in localist and non-violent ways. This continues today in relationship to corporate neoliberalism as it has been adopted and implemented in India since the early nineties. It comes up in East India in relation to corporate mining ventures that are very interested in extracting valuable minerals like bauxite (the basis of aluminium) that are located in the mountains in very biodiverse areas, like the states of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The problem is that there are a number of indigenous groups that live in these areas and are integrally attached to the environment, to the biodiversity of life that exists there. So when a mining company (like Vedanta) comes in and wants to do mountain-top removal and surface mining in these regions, they end up bringing about the displacement of people and initiating a very anti-democratic, even violent, process. This is made possible largely through governmental collusion within the system of military neoliberal extractivism – the process of creating corporate enclaves where Indian and transnational corporations can go in and conduct mining enterprises which are damaging to the environment, to the mountains, to the forest and to the water supply.

    Indigenous people like the Dongria Kondh who live in one area of Odisha, have turned their struggle into an international movement. They’ve been there for generations, and one of the things that came up in the Sustain Talks for me, was a conflict over the meaning of the ‘value’ of nature. For mining corporations and many businesses it’s about economic value. So they see the bauxite in the mountains as a vehicle of modernisation and development and bringing economic benefits to a large amount of people. Critics argue that that’s not exactly the case because it’s mostly about creating wealth for an elite few. The Dongria Kondh would say the value of the mountains supports their whole religious, cultural and material form of life. So when mining companies offer them the benefit of economic modernisation, their response is: ‘we can’t eat your money’. They don’t want to accept the offer of being displaced from their ancestral homeland and giving up their agricultural livelihood, in order ultimately to take a job in a mining factory- which is what they’re being offered. For some Indian politicians, this represents the benefits of modernisation, and modernising a so-called ‘backwards’ people. For the Dongria Kondh and many artists and activists who are now part of this struggle, this is part of a neo-colonial movement of resource expropriation.

    Q: How have they used art in this struggle?

    A: There are numerous examples of how artistic practice enters into the conflict. One is Sanjay Kak, an Indian filmmaker who made a documentary film that came out last year called ‘Red Ant Dream’ about the conflict in Odisha and Chhattisgarh and the conditions of the indigenous and village-based insurgency by people who are called variously the Maoists or the Naxalites; people who are taking up arms in opposition to the Indian state. It’s a violent conflict, what some people call India’s ‘war on terrorism’ at home. Although terrorism is a very difficult and complex term, and is usually used in very ideological ways – to discredit the Maoists, Kak’s film gives visual access to the complexity of the conflict and it counters a lot of corporate media and governmental propaganda that tend to dismiss the Maoists as basically terrorists or communists who have no legitimacy. The film opens up the immense hardships that they’ve faced that have led them into armed struggle: such as being forcibly displaced, living with continual police violence and what some see as a form of internal colonialism, which includes things like torture rape and extra-judicial killings as a strategy of getting people to leave their land so that they can open up the land for mining.

    Another artist that I’m interested in is Amar Kanwar, who’s been working on the conflict in Odisha for a while now. One of his installations is called The Sovereign Forest, which was shown recently in the UK in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. He also has a permanent installation in Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, a multi-media work with photographs and documents and film that offers a picture of the conflict, largely seen through the human costs to indigenous and village-based people in the area. It differs from Kak’s work in that it’s not so much about the Maoist armed struggle of resistance – it’s not in any way sympathetic to that struggle as Kak’s film is. Kanwar’s work is more about: how can we create a third space of independence, of democratic deliberation between diverse stakeholders in this very difficult conflict between on the one hand government repression and the police state, and on the other hand the Maoist insurgency and their turn to violence too, which propels this cycle that has been very destructive for all involved? One of the things that is really interesting in his permanent installation in Bhubaneshwar is a display of seeds- around 272 varieties of seed that are all indigenous Indian varieties contributed by a local farmer called Natabar Sarangi, who has taken up organic farming in order to resist the pressure of corporate agribusiness and GMO patenting of seeds. For Kanwar this is a model- a way of producing a material organic platform for a form of sovereignty and independence, rendered in a very aesthetically moving way in his installation, through the use of film, handmade books, and an archive of seeds made visibly present.

    Q: So it acts a form of direct action that’s non-violent?

    A: Yes, absolutely. In that sense it connects to a Ghandian tradition of non-violence. As well, it offers a model of the politics of aesthetics, wherein Kanwar’s work and Kak’s film both provide innovative ways of organizing appearance, giving those who have had no place in media representations a part, in effect constructing a new ecology of politics.

    Q: Could you explain the idea of Earth Law and the rights of nature?

    A: In relationship to the post-green revolution’s adoption of organic agriculture in India, one of the key writers and activists on behalf of that struggle is Vandana Shiva.   She’s also been connected as an international activist to the developments in Earth Law and the so-called ‘rights of nature’, which have been implemented in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador. Those governments have recognised the importance of creating legal means to protect the environment by formalising the standing of environmental subjects and non-human life forms in their legal code, so that the interests of the environment and its right to a continual biodiverse sustaining existence is recognised in courts of law.

    That’s different from past legal ways of protecting the environment which are largely about protecting peoples’ rights to continue to exploit the environment. For example take the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, people in the US can sue the corporation on the basis that BP has taken away their ability to fish there – displacing their own right to economic exploitation of the environment. As a legal means of protecting the environment it’s quite problematic.

    The new laws in Bolivia and Ecuador say that the environment has an intrinsic right to exist, and is no longer valued according to its human usefulness. That’s leading to various legal battles, around for example the history of oil spills in the Ecuadorian Amazon that have negatively affected the natural ecology (as well as the environment of indigenous groups like the Serayaku), which is being explored by artist-researchers like Paulo Tavares who has done a work called ‘Non-human Rights’, as part of a group exhibition called ‘World of Matter’ that deals with exactly these current eco-legalistic environmental conflicts in Ecuador. Here again art offers an intriguing platform for addressing the interdisciplinary, experimental, and speculative aspects of political ecology, forming a space of creating thinking (e.g. about law, indigeneity, economics, and aesthetics) that doesn’t really exist in very many other places.

    One of the things that was fascinating at the RCA conference was Polly Higgins saying that it’s not enough to enact rights of nature discourse, because this can potentially lead to a system wherein we recognise the rights of nature but don’t have any real means to protect those rights. So she wants to add ‘ecocide’ to the international code of law which would provide a mode of governance to enact the rights of nature: so that if they are breached by whichever corporate industrial practice, those corporations can be tried in criminal courts of law for destroying the environment.

    Q: It’s interesting that nature is frequently separated within discourses from the economy, but that these sorts of ideas about nature’s legal status, have quite revolutionary economic implications- its about changing the system that has led to this destruction of the natural environment.

    A: Absolutely- in effect it’s a legal revolution in what’s call Earth Law or Earth Jurisprudence. And there’s already a number of books on it- like Cormac Cullinan’s ‘Wild Law’; it’s not only happening in Ecuador and Bolivia, it’s really international. And there are elements of this happening everywhere, basically shifting the legal system from a system of law based on territory and property rights and human interests, to a biocentric legal system – to return to Latour’s new ecology of politics – so we’re not dealing continually with a subject-object relationship, where humans are subjects and so-called natural life forms are objects, but rather a system of political equality between people and non-human life, at least before the law. Now what exactly this means is obviously still quite speculative—hence the currency of the topic in experimental artistic research, which is often forward thinking—but it proposes a fascinating system and people like Cullinan have addressed some of these complexities in really interesting ways.

    Paul de Zylva on bees, valuing nature and the role of NGOs

    By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014

    By Harriet Bradley

    Source: Friends of the Earth

    Source: Friends of the Earth

     

    Paul de Zylva is Head of Nature at Friends of the Earth [FOE]. He designed and is running FOE’s current campaign – The Bee Cause – launched on April 11 2012. Two years from its launch, they’re on the verge of getting a National Pollinator Strategy [NPS] from the Government.

    Q: What motivated you to set up The Bee Cause?

    A: The organisation was looking for a new campaign. We’d done a lot of work on energy and climate change issues but we weren’t doing much about the natural environment. There was a lot of concern about the issue of bee decline, there were a lot of organisations working on bees – but I think FOE is an organization dealing with the ‘root-cause’ problem – and no one was looking at all the causes of bee decline together. And that felt like an opportunity to work on an issue about bees, but that’s also really about our relationship to, or our mismanagement of, nature.

    Q: Was there something particularly dramatic happening at the time in terms of bee populations?

    A: Not really, no. There had been a decline in honeybees over a 20-year period between 1985 and 2005. The Government had funded some research into the pests and diseases of managed honeybee colonies, but no one was looking at wild bees and broader pollinators, or joining up the causes of decline. I thought that was the space FOE could occupy in a way that wouldn’t threaten other organisations and that would give people lots of interesting angles on the issue.

    Q: So you get a form of competition between campaigning organisations?

    A: There’s always a bit of healthy competition and collaboration among campaign groups but with The Bee Cause we’ve helped by bringing together the issues in a coherent way. Although the issue is already popular, it isn’t any easier because it touches on so many tough and potentially controversial issues such as what is the role of farming in relation to the natural environment? What is the role of chemicals in relation to species?

    Q: Why do you think The Bee Cause is a policy issue?

    A: Because there was a policy vacuum. We launched the campaign with a report from the University of Reading who said the issues are about farming, pesticide exposure, loss of habitat, the way we develop our towns and cities and, for managed colonies of honeybees, about pests and diseases and the danger of them migrating into the wild bee population. And then they’re about those causes interacting.

    The Government was putting a lot of money into honeybee research, but there wasn’t a huge amount of policy detail. If the Government’s draft plan being developed now is half good, it will fill quite a lot of that policy gap. I think that whilst we live in an age of “Big Society” and localism, the public still looks to Government to lead. If the Government doesn’t have a policy on an issue, why would the public act?

    Q: Do you think the economic and social benefits that bees provide explain the Government taking an interest in this particular issue?

    A: Yes- that as well. The day we launched the campaign we led in our press release with the fact that if we had to pollinate crops in the UK by hand, it would cost farmers an extra £1.8 billion a year, and that would go on food bills. And that got political attention.

    We had support from 250 MPs across the party divide backing our call for a bee action plan in the UK. I think they saw the sense that in an era when everyone’s talking about food security and valuing the natural environment more, are you really going to ignore the problem of bee decline?

    Q: What is Friends of the Earth’s relationship to policy makers, how does it influence them and the policy agenda?

    A: Sometimes it’s through formal channels- changing or using the law has been a theme of FOE’s work over the decades; we like to get our policy positions right and base those on good research. Democracy may not be perfect and in many ways it doesn’t work anywhere near what it needs to for the challenges we face on the climate and the natural environment. But can you do campaigning and advocacy without policy? Probably not. You’ve got to stand for something.

    But policy work is more subtle than just going in at legislative level. Direct meetings with ministers I think is increasingly the theme of our times. And a lot of policy stems from working with decision-makers in business or civil society.

    Q: Like working with business?

    A: Yes, we are working with certain business interests through the bees campaign like B&Q, M&S, the Co-operative, Waitrose, Sainsburys. There are increasingly in my view pennies dropping around whole different sectors of society about what climate and a diminishing natural world means for farming, business supply chains, and civic society. Companies like Puma have looked at the whole effect on the natural environment of their product chain. The bottom line is that if they had to pay the true cost of what impact they have on the environment they would be out of business.

    Q: Are you up against other lobbyists working behind the scenes with opposing interests?

    A: Yes, they are there but I think that’s the name of the game. You know that they’re probably doing some stuff behind the scenes which is representing their interests. Equally, I think it’s been very powerful for us to be able to show to ministers the businesses and civic society organisations that we are working with.

    Q: Do you feel a pressure to place a cost on things?

    A: The valuation of nature is quite contentious. My colleagues are concerned about the unproven market-based ‘financialization’ of nature. You can never put an accurate price on nature, but if you give some indicative figures it focuses the mind and sets off a debate that policymakers are never going to do without that focus.

    The test of the valuation of nature debate is whether it starts to turn round the decline of nature, and if that change leads to changes in policy fields but also within business practices. If it’s simply another case of destroying nature because we’ve managed to sell it to the highest bidder, then that’s not a change, that’s just creating a market.

    Q: So do think that we need a national or international solution, along the lines of the European Commission’s ban on some pesticides linked to bee decline.

    A: It’s a 2-year restriction until 2015 on some uses of three neonicotinoids. It got loads of interest from North America and Canada, because they’re having the same kind of debate there. But obviously pesticides are only part of the problem.

    Q: What do you see as the long-term solution – do we need to rethink our agricultural system?

    A: Oh yes. We need to rethink a lot. The latest Common Agricultural Policy reforms promised to ‘green the CAP’ and they’ve been a huge let down- a lot of lobbying behind the scenes has stopped the reforms that were needed. There’s a lively debate about whether we need to continue to just squeeze the land to grow more crops, or whether there’s a better way of feeding mouths other than squeezing the life out of our farmland. Bees have brought about that debate on pesticides, but it also needs to apply to the urban environment.

    So yes, transformational change is what we need, but it will probably happen in increments, and occasional shocks to the system. The job of a campaigning organisation like FOE is to use those issues but be ready for them as well. That’s the world of campaigning- it’s about that basic human spirit that you can make a difference. There is a view held by some in certain organisations that charities shouldn’t be campaigning for change, charities should just do good works. It’s come to the fore recently in the whole debate about the Lobbying Bill, where the constraints are now put on charities in the run up to a General Election.

    Q: So do you think those restrictions have come from those sorts of voices?

    A: Partly, I think there’s a healthy debate about what a charity should be. We are confronting some of the big issues of the day, on pollution, energy, traffic, redevelopment, green space- I think that’s as much ‘Big Society’ and civil action and civic pride as anything. We fundamentally believe that good decision-making and good governance is what’s needed if we’re going to turn around some of these problems, and get away from the idea that somehow just by making the economy better everything will be okay.

    For example there’s a rescue job needed on sustainable development to reclaim what it means, rather than just say it’s the economy comes first and everything else comes last. There has been a hijacking in some cases of sustainability – enough industries putting the word ‘sustainable’ in front of words like ‘aviation’. Words become normalized, but you then have to challenge their usage to hold people to account and hold true what is really meant by those things.

    Q: Perhaps costing nature could be a way of drawing attention to problems not traditionally seen to come into economic calculations?

    A: It’s a way of garnering attention, you need to know where the risks are. Some of our colleagues in southern countries- in Africa, Asia, South America in particular, are very suspicious of the financialization of nature. They’ve experienced this with an initiative called REDD and REDD+, where incentives have been given to continue to destroy rainforest or virgin forest because companies get subsidized to plant oil palm plantations.

    Q: That seems to undermine theories that the wealthier a country becomes, the more likely they are to care about environmental, as opposed to ‘materialist’ issues.

    A: There is some evidence, but it’s too easy and increasingly inaccurate to say it’s only the rich who care about the environment. I think the challenge is that people engage with nature and the environment irrespective, but if they’re not asked the right questions, if they’re told what to think, or they’re not given the chance to explore real choices, they’ll give the usual answers; that they’re not interested, or they need a job to put food on the table. We work with a lot of communities of environmental campaigners who are not wealthy, like those in North East England facing the worst excesses of industrial pollution. If you go to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, a lot of groups in Africa, there are people trying to do similar stuff against the odds.

    Our job, as FOE nationally and internationally, is to empower those people to get a bit more traction on the issues to start doing stuff. Who holds the power and in whose interests are always good questions to ask. Just because you’ve identified the answers to those doesn’t mean you’ve solved the problem, but you map out who you need to work with. I think some institutions, organisations and decision-makers are starting to think the world is changing.

    Q: Do you mean in terms of climate change?

    A: Yes, some businesses are thinking far longer than most governments and some departments of state are prepared to think far longer than any term of office. The challenge to groups like us is always to make these things far more accessible than government ever will, and then reflect back to government and decision-makers that they are responsible.

    Q: So you have more of a capacity to take a longer-term perspective?

    A: Climate change is a long-term issue, but it’s also a short-term issue. If you look beneath the public opinion polls of what gets reported in the media, there are some fundamental questions facing every society, community, locality, about the things that really matter. And they tend not to be the things that get most of the public debate or media attention.

    Q: That conveys a more positive view of human nature- that people do want to know about these things.

    A: I wouldn’t be sitting here if I wasn’t positive. FOE and other organisations spent 40 years putting the environment on the agenda. Now we’ve got it there, we’re trying to work out where that goes next. And one of the key things is that it isn’t just a separate issue – it’s fundamental to all the questions about quality of life, wealth, welfare, wellbeing, health, human rights – whether it’s comparing Teesside to Dorking, or the Thames Valley to Thailand.

    There’s trouble down-under: UNESCO recommendations and the Great Barrier Reef

    By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014

    By Harriet Bradley

    Source: http://www.brisvaani.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Abbot-Point-coal-point.jpg

    Source: http://www.brisvaani.com

    Over the last 50 years pollution, over-fishing, tourism and climate change, among other factors, has caused coral reefs to decline by an estimated 80% in some parts of the world, and could reach 60% globally by 2050. Scientists at the Catlin Group – who have been documenting this decline since 2012 – note that the impact could extend to 500 million people in communities across the world relying on the reefs for food, tourism, and coastal protection. Whereas, if coral reefs were maintained in good condition, they could benefit the world by $30 billion a year.

    In January 2014, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved plans to dump dredged sediment (a by-product of plans to create one of the world’s biggest coastal coal ports at Abbot Point) in some areas, which, some scientists warn, could poison the reef. This decision disregarded opposition from numerous environmental groups and a letter signed by 233 scientists calling the GBRMPA to reject the plan. In this case, short-term economic interests appear pitted against longer-term economic and environmental ones. And those with the authority to act are currently backing the former.

    There does not have to be such an incompatibility between economic activities and environmental activity. Indeed, the fact that the Catlin Group – which has been funding a global survey of coral reefs since 2012 – is a specialty insurance firm suggests not only the increasing complexity of the relationship between the economy and the environment, but also the emerging realisation in some quarters of the long-term economic risks of environmental destruction.

    A casualty of this saga has been ‘objective’ scientific assessment. It has been blurred by the ‘green-light’ assessment of the Ports Australia report and the mining industry, represented by the Queensland Resource Council, who endorse dredging as environmentally safe. This conflicts with the report of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS). This represents a common trend where science is being vied for in politics, rather than being considered objectively.

    The politics of the issue escalated to the international level in late April 2014, following UNESCO’s recommendation to consider the reef for its List of World Heritage in Danger at its 39th session in 2015. This could present an opportunity to change – or at least put the unwelcome international spotlight on – the current preferences of the Australian government. However, the Queensland Environment Minister, Andrew Powell, denied that the government would follow UNESCO’s recommendation. The implication is that such a move by UNESCO would involve significant reputational damage to the Queensland and Australian governments, especially given the increasingly important role that coral reefs may play in protecting coasts from sea-level rises associated with climate change. Whatever the outcome, the episode will provide evidence on whether international monitoring bodies like UNESCO have the power to impose reputational costs and whether these will lead to a change in regulatory policy from the Australian government.

     

    Dr Lisa Vanhala on the courts, human rights and climate change

    By Olivia Robinson, on 24 September 2014

    By Harriet Bradley

    Dr Lisa Vanhala is Director of the Human Rights masters programme at UCL’s School of Public Policy. Her research relating to environmental issues focuses on why some environmental NGOs pursue legal action whilst others do not and why we see a judicialization of climate change politics in some countries and not others. This interview reflects on Dr Vanhala’s previous and ongoing work in these areas, and also on the link between environmental issues, climate change and human rights.

    HB: Could you give an outline of the major themes to do with the role of courts in the climate change debate?

    LV: It’s a literature in the sub-field of law and courts in political science that is interested in how courts weigh in on policy-making decisions. Most judges say their job isn’t to be policy-makers, it’s to act as a check and balance on other institutions in a democratic system, but increasingly we do see them overturning or challenging the decisions of legislatures.

    But courts don’t just act when they want to: they have to be beckoned by litigants. Some of my previous work looked at some of the hurdles that stop citizens or NGOs interested in acting on environmental issues from taking cases to court. For example, in the UK it’s very expensive and although rules saying that only individuals not NGOs were allowed to bring a case have changed a lot over the last 20 or 30 years, it’s starting to narrow again with some policy-makers trying to restrict access to the courts.

    The project I’m starting now is interested in the judicialization of climate change politics: whether we see more decisions shifting away from legislatures and executives into judicial arenas. Certainly in the US we’ve seen that: the Senate failed in 2010 to pass a climate change bill, there’s no really effective federal climate legislation, but we have seen a number of Supreme Court decisions that do talk about regulating emissions. So I’m interested in exploring whether that’s true in other countries and what impact this has on policy.

    HB: Is there an example that you can pick out of the kind of case you might see being brought to a court?

    LV: There aren’t as many as you might think. My research looked at the UK and Canada and Australia and it depends on what you count as a climate change case. Certainly the most quintessential case is ‘Massachusetts versus the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]’ in 2007, brought by I think 10 or 12 states allied with some cities and some NGOs, claiming that under the Clean Air Act- developed in the 60s and 70s to regulate air pollution- the EPA should be limiting Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. The court did say, yes, under the Clean Air Act the EPA has been mandated to make the decision about whether to regulate GHG emissions.

    HB: Could you comment about the variety of litigants that you get, beyond victims of pollution?

    LV: It’s a good point- we always think about “eco-warriors” taking cases to court, particularly in the US because there’s a real culture of litigation there. But a lot of corporates will sue each other, for example for violating the UK Climate Change Act. It’s really a form of competition in the courtroom. You have cases of cement factories suing each other, and there’s quite a bit of wind farm litigation in Australia and the UK. Litigants are of all types and really with climate change the difficulty is finding the causal linkage between perpetrators and the harm that is done and who the victims really are. In some sense we’re all victims when it comes to climate change.

    HB: Is that why you’ve challenged the idea in the literature that the courts are simply ‘filling a policy gap’ left by institutions and governments? It seems a bit more complex.

    LV: Yes, part of what motivated that paper [Vanhala, 2013] was my methodological interest and teaching Advanced Qualitative Methods and thinking about things like selection bias in case selection. Everyone making this argument about courts filling a policy gap was looking at the US case; there’s no federal legislation there and the courts were starting to act. It’s a really important jurisdiction: up until recently they were the biggest emitters and over history they’ve been the largest emitters. But there a lots of other conditions that led to the courts stepping in – the environment legislation which was really quite progressive in the 60s and 70s created provisions for citizens to take litigation. In a way they saw this as a normal part of citizens participating in environmental democracy.

    Thinking about Canada, they have no legislation at the national level, they’ve since rescinded on their Kyoto commitments, but you also don’t see any real activity in the courts – it’s raised this other puzzle of why are groups not doing more there? Particularly in a jurisdiction where you have the oil sands that’s going to lead to huge emissions. That’s what the next step of my research is trying to get at: are there hurdles that groups or citizens are facing there that don’t allow them to take litigation or do they just see it as a hopeless cause? I think a lot of Canadians would see themselves as less litigious than Americans, but in other areas – for example my previous work on disability, groups were really active there in taking cases to court. So I think something quite specific could be going on in environmental policy-making, which suggests the link between a lack of policy and the courts stepping in is more complex than what some previous scholars had said.

    HB: Moving on to the issue of climate change as a human rights issue- what do you see as the link between the two?

    LV: I think the consensus in the literature and one that I certainly subscribe to is that climate change and its impacts are going to become a really serious human rights issue- and in some places they already are.

    There are a number of different dimensions on which we can think that climate change might impact or influence people’s human rights- fundamental things to do with the right to life, or the right to clean water and food. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th assessment report suggests that some countries, such as the Maldives and other Least Developed Countries or Small Island Developing States, won’t be in existence in 100 years time if sea levels rise the way that we predict they will, challenging the fundamental right to exist.

    I’m still trying to digest the literature on human rights as a solution to the climate change problem- whether these rights are enforceable and practicable. Human rights are very individualistic notions of a right against the threat of climate change whereas actually the challenge of climate change requires overcoming a collective action problem.

    HB: Is there anything in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that outlines those rights?

    LV: One of the interesting things about the UNFCCC is about procedural rights – the rights of non-state actors, citizens and NGOs to participate in UNFCCC processes. They’re constantly battling for these procedural rights, which in some ways we can think about as human rights- a right to be heard, a right to information, a right to participate in decision-making and access to justice. Although they were written into the text it’s almost one step forward, two steps back because when groups get access somewhere it’s taken away somewhere else. When NGOs are invited into meetings then they start to hold ‘informal informals’ – meetings where NGOs don’t have access and may be where all the decision-making happens.

    HB: When you were presenting at the Warsaw Conference of the Parties (COP) last year, what was that about?

    LV: It was a side event to the COP organised by Yale and the UN Institute on Training and Research about climate governance and human rights. I was presenting about access to justice for NGOs, and some of the hurdles that remain to access to justice, even in the Global North – and so it’s going to be even trickier in the Global South. So if people experience environmental harm- what kind of redress mechanisms are available to them, and do they see remedies or compensation of a sort? That’s something we’re increasingly going to have to think about with climate change.

    It becomes very stark when you hear people’s own stories. I felt quite optimistic that the academic research is capturing what’s happening- we’re not quite as isolated in the ivory tower as you might think sometimes!

    HB: Could you comment on the notion of an environmental refugee?

    LV: In my undergraduate Global Environmental Politics class we talk about environmental security and what the linkage is between environmental threats and conflict- are they a cause of conflict, an exacerbating factor, or can it sometimes be the outcome of conflict as well?

    But thinking about countries that may disappear and environmental refugees, again it’s a question of causality- there are so many links in a chain leading to someone becoming a refugee and courts are very uncomfortable with long causal chains, without a certain type of evidence to back that up.

    HB: Is there anything that you think political scientists should focus on in establishing such a certain causal connection?

    LV: Thinking about the causal connection is really to be done by scientists – and is being: Myles Allen in Oxford is developing some quite interesting ways of trying to think about how you can prove to a courtroom that a particular storm or flood was caused by climate change and not other things. I think some really interesting and tricky work like that could be done by political scientists in collaboration with scientists.

    Our new Institute of Global Governance is going to do a great job in trying to bring people from different disciplines in thinking about the functioning of global governance in this area. There’s a growing literature in International Relations about the challenges to reaching agreement and I think the next year and a half before the 2015 Paris COP are going to be absolutely crucial. It’s about how to convince policy-makers that this challenge is a real one and in democracies that this is something that the public cares about. That has really fallen off the agenda quite a bit since 2008, it was quite a different picture before the financial crisis. There’s something in explaining the factors influencing whether climate change gets on the agenda or not.

    I think there’s really interesting work to be done looking at the comparative level- so what are individual states doing and how effective is that to combat climate change? The UK Climate Change Act is a great example of that – it’s some of the most stringent legislation on GHGs. Whether it’s going to be lived up to is another thing, and that’s something again political science and socio-legal scholars can be doing that’s real.

     

    References

    Vanhala, Lisa. 2013. ‘The comparative politics of courts and climate change.’ Environmental Politics 22(3):447-474.

     

     

    Ozone: An Update

    By Lucy Phillips, on 28 March 2014

    By Harriet Bradley, IPPR Environment Columnist

    The ozone hole (2006)

    The ozone hole (2006)

    27 years on from when the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer first came into force, it emerges that at least four anthropogenic substances, not banned by the previous treaty, are likely threatening the recovery of the seasonal ozone “hole” over Antarctica. Evidenced in the Oxford Martin School’s October 2013 report ‘Now for the Long Term’ as an exemplar of international problem solving, the Montreal Protocol has been widely heralded as the most successful international environmental treaty. However, this recent revelation, uncovered by scientists at the University of East Anglia, undermines its perceived long-term efficacy. The implied increase in scope of a treaty that bans additional ozone depleting substances (ODS), particularly given their links with greenhouse gases, paves the way for an enlarged economic and political arena of debate.

    The revelation is interesting for International Relations (IR) scholars and public policy makers alike. For IR scholars, it is interesting to consider what the discovery of these substances pose for theorists of ‘transnationalism’ and ‘epistemic communities’ – these theorists predict that transnational communities of experts (such as the scientific community) bear an important influence on transnational policy making, increasing the likelihood of cooperation. The revelation provides a potential ‘test case’ to help answer the question as to how far science informs and/or provides the impetus for international agreements, and how long it takes for this influence to manifest itself in policy. For those who contest the formative role of science in such agreements, it could be used to test whether the enlarged scope of these new revelations bears an impact on the political will to deal with the issues at hand. For example, two of the newly identified ‘harmful’ substances are used in insecticides and chemical feedstock (which UNEP is not obliged to report under the protocol), whilst the most highly emitted ODS, nitrous oxide, is widely used in fertilizers – predicted pressure from powerful lobby groups, such as farmers, will perhaps undermine any enthusiasm politicians might have had in confronting the issue.

    For policy makers, the news throws up a number of interesting questions. These include the possible existence of loopholes or violations of the original treaty, as well as the need for policy to remain up to date with scientific developments. To be effective over the long-term, agreements based on science must be constantly and vigilantly monitored. It will be interesting to see whether policy debates surrounding renewed threats to the ozone will be affected by the same lines of division that plague climate change talks. There is a risk that the ozone debate will once again be politicised, undermining the likelihood of generating a simple successor to the Montreal Protocol.

    From a wider political standpoint, the issue begs the question as to whether national governments possess the tools, or indeed the will, to forge a new international agreement? It is possible that the issue will be even more contentious than in the 1970s and 1980s, when the strength of the public environmental movement in the US (along with the American development of alternatives to CFCs), set the US as the natural leader of the Protocol. Considering the widened scope and concomitant interests involved, whether the US has either the ability or desire to continue to lead the movement remains open to debate.

    What is interesting is that some players who were instrumental in their initial support of the Montreal Protocol, such as Canada (where the Protocol was signed), today show signs of reluctance in allowing policy to be influenced by science. The Canadian government under Prime Minister Steven Harper have introduced significant cuts to the funding of environmental science. For example, in 2012, the government cut funding to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, (PEARL), an organization which provides scientific data on ozone depletion and climate change for scientists around the world. One of its founders, Dr Tom Duck, fears the move could be related to the government’s pursuit of valuable oil and gas resources in the Arctic, as they become increasingly accessible with climate change.  In September 2013, Canadians demonstrated against the cutbacks to science funding, and against the campaign to relax laws on what scientists can reveal to the public.

    Contrary to its presentation in ‘Now for the Long Term’ and elsewhere as a ‘closed chapter’ from which international policy makers can now all learn, this news highlights the real lessons of the issue of ozone depletion: the need for constant vigilance and ongoing adaptation of policy and international accords to keep up with rapid developments in the interlinked areas of technology, the environment and science.