Should climate change be considered ecocide?
Professor Nigel South argues it should in his blog introducing the origins of the idea and the possibilities it holds.
Recent years have seen mounting legal attention and action focused on the challenge of climate change, with cases being brought against governments, corporations, and individuals responsible for either failing to mitigate or contributing directly to its causes with impunity. For example, the climate denial industry that is sponsored by fossil fuel interests is now being challenged in several serious court cases (McGreal, 2021). All this is based on existing legal tools. But what might be possible if we were able to add to the body of international law a new crime of Ecocide?
The ideas underpinning such a proposition can be traced back to the early 1970s: a mention at a 1970 conference by Arthur Galston, a biologist concerned about defoliant chemicals as weapons of war; a reference to human disregard for the planet in a 1972 speech by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme; and Richard Falk’s (1973) draft of a legal outline. But it is really only in the last decade or so that the idea has attracted widespread attention, and this was in large part due to the campaigning work of one person.
In early work on what was emerging as ‘green criminology’ (South, 1998; Brisman and South, 2020), I was looking for a legal concept or proposition that could be applied to the prohibition or criminalization of widespread or large-scale mass environmental harms. But I was not a lawyer, the ‘Ecocide’ terminology was not well known, and sociologists and criminologists tended to refer to existing regulatory regimes and official agencies when discussing pollution, corporate crimes, and similar offences. It was meeting and hearing Polly Higgins, the barrister turned eco-campaigner, that enthused me about the possibilities of a law of ecocide (Higgins et al, 2013).
Tragically Polly died, far too soon, in April 2019 by which time she had spent around ten years advancing the arguments for a law of ecocide, gathering support, inspiring an international network, and co-founding the Stop Ecocide Foundation (https://www.stopecocide.earth/who-we-are-). Polly had first presented a draft definition to the U.N. Law Commission in 2010 and called for it to be used as the basis for an addition to the list of ‘the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole’ covered by the Rome Statute – i.e. genocide; crimes against humanity; war crimes; and the crime of aggression. Given that a key consideration is that laws need an enforcement mechanism, the link to the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC) made obvious sense although there is also an argument for the creation of a new body such as an Environmental Security Council (Faizi, 2021). Of course, there have been criticisms of the ecocide proposal, and some argue that existing international law could be adequate if used rigorously and appropriately - but everything that has happened to date suggests that it isn’t.
In June this year, the independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation concluded its drafting work and offered the following definition: ‘For the purpose of this Statute, “ecocide” means unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts’ (https://www.stopecocide.earth/faqs-ecocide-the-law). This definition offers a clear conceptual statement around which new forms of legal activity to support urgent action on climate change could coalesce. All this is encouraging although there is a long way to go - as news headlines of the past months remind us. Climate-related calamities such as floods, forest fires and heat domes have featured – but also shared prominence with stories of billionaires playing with rocket ships and promising sub-orbital flights for those who can pay the ticket-price and the chance to join the queue to escape the Earth and colonise Mars. It seems that the action and understanding many around the world passionately call for and translate into practice, is still not enough to ensure climate change has the prominence and urgency it requires. It’s time to get climate crimes into court and climate change back at the top of the agenda. With COP2021 beginning to gather news media attention, could this see renewed support for legal responses to the climate crimes that are committed every day?
by Nigel South September 2021
Nigel South PhD is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex, an Adjunct Professor, School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology, and Honorary Visiting Professor, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Suffolk. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and in 2013 received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Criminology, Division on Critical Criminology and Social Justice. He is co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Green Criminology (2nd edition, 2020), co-author of Water, Crime and Security in the Twenty-First Century: Too dirty, too little, too much (2018) and is currently working on the concept of ‘health justice’ and the impacts of Covid on Indigenous communities in Colombia.
References and Further Reading
Faizi, S.(2021): Ecocides: On the Need for an Environmental Security Council (ESC), Capitalism Nature Socialism, DOI: 10.1080/10455752.2021.1959859
Falk, Richard A. (1973) ‘Environmental Warfare and Ecocide –Facts, Appraisal, and Proposals’. Security Dialogue. 4. pp. 80-96.
Higgins, P, Short, D and South, N (2013) ‘Protecting the planet: a proposal for a law of Ecocide’, Crime, Law and Social Change 59, 3: 251-266.
McGreal, C (2021) 'Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price', The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/30/climate-crimes-oil-and-gas-environment
Brisman, A. and South, N. (eds) (2020) Routledge Handbook of Green Criminology, (2nd edition). Abingdon: Routledge.
Higgins, P. Short, D. and South, N. (2013) ‘Protecting the planet: a proposal for a law of Ecocide’, Crime, Law and Social Change 59, 3: 251-266.
South, D. and South, N. (2021) ‘Bunkerization: elite preparedness and retreat in the Anthropocene’ in J. Carillo and C. Garner (eds) City Preparedness for the Climate Crisis, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
South, N. (2012) ‘Climate change, environmental (in)security, conflict and crime’ in S. Farrall, French, D. and Ahmed, T. (eds) Climate Change: Legal and Criminological Implications, pp. 97-111. Oxford: Hart.
South, N. (1998) ‘A green field for criminology?: a proposal for a perspective’ Theoretical Criminology, 2, 2: 211-234
South, N. and Walters, R. (2020) ‘Power, environmental harm and the threat of global ecocide’ pp. 139-178 in L. Copson, E. Dimou and S. Tombs (eds), Crime, Harm and the State (volume 2), Milton Keynes: Open University.