Changing the Climate Debate: BP Case Study

The other day, I met Cormac Cullinan, a lawyer from Cape Town, South Africa who wrote Wild Law: a Manifesto for Earth Justice in 2002. I picked up the second edition of Wild Law at Global Exchange’s release party for their new book, The Rights of Nature.  Both books assert the need for a legal framework that would allow us to legally assert nature’s right to exist in a court of law.  Cormac’s was of course way ahead of its time in some ways, but also right on time in that it sparked the conversations that bring you to this page.

In this post, Cormac explains why we prefer to look at GHG reductions rather than looking more deeply at the root of our issues, for which climate destabilization is just one of the symptoms:

The reason why few are willing to look at the big picture is that admitting to this collision course between humanity and nature opens up a conversation that most of the world’s governments and corporations are desperate to avoid. They prefer to focus on greenhouse gas emissions, because it narrows the response to debating emission reduction techniques, instead of on transforming the economic, legal and political systems that encourage and legitimize environmental destruction.

He follows to explain how Ecuador’s constitutional amendment that recognizes Nature’s Rights is being used to challenge BP over violation of rights of nature due to the Gulf Oil disaster.

On 26 November 2010, a group of prominent international environmental and social activists and indigenous people’s leaders filed a lawsuit with the Constitution Court in Quito, Ecuador. This is based on the provisions in the new Ecuadorian constitution that, for the first time in history, recognize that Nature (or Pachamama) has inherent legal rights which any person may enforce before a court of law. The lawsuit was filed against British Petroleum (BP) and relates, not to oil spills in Ecuador, but to the harm to natural ecosystems caused by the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Plaintiff Diana Murcia explained the motives for the case, saying that, “Nature is the only subject that has been absent from the legal discussions surrounding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and one of our goals is to introduce Nature in the international debate as a rights-bearing entity.”

Up to now, the various legal suits taken up against BP are largely for personal injury and economic damages, and for breaches of specific environmental laws such as the US Clean Water Act. The Ecuadorian lawsuit, by contrast, would be the first to look in its totality at the impact of the oil spill on the marine environment and surrounding ecosystems. The lawsuit states that no financial sum will compensate for the environmental damage, and instead directs its demands towards ensuring that such a disaster will never happen again.

I like that he is realistic about humans operate and pragmatic in the need to address how we operate.

Introducing nature rights and climate tribunals won’t end environmental abuses, as human rights legislation has not forever ended human rights abuses. However it does enable us to begin to use our legal systems to balance destructive human initiatives against the need to maintain the health of planetary ecosystems.  It would also provide a mechanism to help force our political leaders to devise policies to keep us within Nature’s non-negotiable limits. It could start to close the widening chasm between what needs to be done to stop climate change and environmental devastation and the complete ineffectiveness of our current political response. It’s time as Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu has said “to embrace our kinship with all the beings of the Earth community and to recognize, respect and defend the rights of all.” Our collective survival depends on us defending the rights of the planet that is our home.

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