Extra Virgin February 09 - Antilove
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environmentTheft on the Global Common

Leonie Joubert considers a world where an international court could try people for crimes against the climate. Something akin to what goes on at The Hague, only greener. And with real muscle.

Someone breaks into your house and nicks a few heirlooms. That’s theft. The same robber kills someone in the process, and its murder, fair and square. So what happens if the robber is half a world away, and the smoking gun is a less conventional murder weapon?

Say, the “gun” is a rising sea level, the “trigger” is an extreme weather event (in this case, a particularly nasty storm surge), and the victim is someone asleep in bed near the sea shore. Technically, a life is being taken illegally and that is murder. But who is pulling the trigger?

When we’re talking about environmental crimes and its victims, climate change is a tricky one. The extreme weather events which are coming thicker and faster than ever before are not the result of one company dumping poison into a river, or a single person throwing litter out the car window.

The pollution behind our shifting climate comes from everyone who has been alive on the planet for the past 250 years (actually, the polluting started a long time before then, but the real acceleration started with the Industrial Revolution). Some communities have polluted exponentially more than others… but it’s still quite hard to find someone with gunpowder residue on their hands, so to speak.

Prof Jim Hansen – the guy who first told US Congress 20 years ago that there was conclusive evidence of human-caused rises in temperature, and was promptly ignored – said in an interview recently that the executives of large oil companies should be tried for crimes against humanity. His reasoning was that not only had they continued to steer an industry on the fossil fuel road (they could have begun shifting their business model to developing greener energy years ago), but that some of them had been deliberately involved in propaganda campaigns to sow doubt on the growing evidence that human-caused climate change is already upon us.

Speaking at a climate change conference in Cape Town in January, geologist Prof Rob Brown from the University of Glasgow took the idea of climate crimes a step further.

“Under the United Nations’ marine law, it’s illegal to dump noxious substances in the sea,” Brown put to the audience, “so if (a country or company) produces that much carbon dioxide, that should be seen as illegal dumping and they should be prosecuted.”

If a coastal home is inundated by a rise in sea level, it should be seen as theft of property. Drought and crop failure as a result of someone else’s air travel could be seen as wilful damage to property. And what of someone dying in a heat wave because of another’s First World excess – could that then be seen as murder?

The climate crisis is putting a new spin on the idea of environmental crimes. It’s difficult to prove complicity, because there’s no direct link between cause and effect. The pollution causing the problem has been puffing out into our skies for hundreds of years, from different parts of the globe.

But we do know which communities are the worst offenders. Maybe it’s time for them to compensate those, mostly in poor countries, who are on the muzzle-end of climate change. A great, green gavel in The Hague.





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