Trevor Hancock: On climate, it's short-term pain for long-term gain, backed by courts

One of the biggest challenges in addressing climate change is that it’s a very slow-moving ­crisis. We need to take action now in order to avert problems many years, even decades, into the future, but our system is biased against such action. Short-term pain for long-term gain has never been a popular message, and is not likely to get you ­re-elected, while the ­business cycle is too focused on the short-term bottom line.

In the case of climate change, moreover, we are asking older adults in positions of power to make decisions that not only may adversely affect their ­situation here and now, but where the benefits will likely come after they are dead and will largely benefit people on the other side of the world.

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However, this message ­resonates with younger people, since they will be alive when the adverse impacts on society of climate change, loss of biodiversity and other massive human-created ecological changes are felt. Which is why young people and NGOs around the world are taking their governments — and in some cases, corporations — to court, where they are winning significant victories.

The situation was summarized by Chris Tollefson, a law professor at the University of Victoria and executive director of the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, speaking at the opening plenary of the Canadian Society for ­Ecological Economics in late May (you can also find much of this on the website of the U.S. Climate Change Litigation database).

In 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court, in a case brought by the Urgenda Foundation and 900 Dutch citizens, upheld an earlier court ruling that the European Convention on Human Rights applied to the government’s actions on climate change. It found the government had a duty of care to protect the right to life and a responsibility to reduce emissions based on the science; specifically, a 25 per cent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.

More recently, reported Bill McKibben in The New Yorker, a Dutch court has ruled that Shell must markedly increase its planned cuts to emissions. Noting that “severe climate change has consequences for human rights, including the right to life,” a spokesperson for the court stated: “The court thinks that companies, among them Shell, have to respect those human rights” and that “the consequences of severe climate change are more important than Shell’s interests.” Powerful ­findings indeed.

In France, a case brought by four NGOs resulted in a ruling this year that “France’s inaction has caused ecological damage from climate change” and that “France could be held ­responsible for failing to meet its own climate and carbon budget goals under EU and national law.”

In Germany, a case brought by youth argued that the ­reduction targets in the Federal Climate Protection Act were insufficient to protect their human rights. In April, the federal Constitutional Court ruled in their favour, striking down parts of the Act. Of particular importance, the court found “one generation must not be allowed to consume large parts of the CO2 budget … if this would, at the same time, leave future generations with a radical reduction burden.” In other words, future generations have rights today.

In Australia, a case brought by eight schoolchildren argued that the environment minister had a “duty of care” and was legally obliged to consider potential harm to them in the future in deciding whether to allow a coal mining project to proceed. ­Australia’s ABC reported the Federal Court judge found ­climate change would have “catastrophic” and “startling” impacts on Australia’s children, the mine would increase that risk and a duty of care does exist.

Tollefson, who is counsel for the plaintiffs in the La Rose case here in Canada, summarized the reasons for these cases as “a response to democratic failure, an invitation for judicial oversight and an invitation to enhance the role of best available science in political discourse” — quite an indictment of our current system.

Even though the cases in Canada and the U.S. are hitting snags, these rulings hold out hope that young people, NGOs and the courts are able to hold governments and ­corporations responsible for the harms caused by their actions, or their failure to act.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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