Loevinsohn: Climate Resilience Matters, But Resistance Begins in the Courts
Opinion & Analysis
I was on Vancouver Island this August. The haze that dimmed noon to dusk and that drove air quality off scale—the worst on the planet for a time—was a shock, as it must have been for many. I have been working on and around climate change for a good while, mostly in the global South, but this summer I had it in my face and in my lungs.
The IPCC report on the danger of allowing average global temperature rise to exceed 1.5Co and the narrowing path to avoid it confirms something I now know myself. People in the low latitudes where I work, and in the high latitudes where Inuit have seen their sea ice shrink and sometimes collapse under them, have already grasped that.
Like this story? Subscribe to The Energy Mix and never miss an edition of our free e-digest.
Here in The Netherlands, the slackened jet stream that kept hot, dry air over western Canada and the U.S. brought exceptional heat and a drought that turned vegetation brown. Groundwater levels have fallen sharply, allowing saltwater to intrude. The Rhine and the other rivers that made this land are historically low, impeding the barge traffic from Rotterdam that supplies much of Germany’s industry.
People are worried, but it’s hard to know how much. The Dutch define themselves by resilience: they won much of the land from the sea and learned from the floods that swept in from seaward and from the rivers. In recent years, they’ve recognized that they have to give up some control: dikes and houses were pushed back, giving the rivers more room to flood. Rotterdam has been re-engineered to let the water come in if it wants to.
Dealing with too little water is a new challenge, but it’s hard to find anyone who thinks they won’t rise to it. Expertise on resilience has become a Dutch export.
In the global South, resilience is now a major objective of development assistance: enabling people to better weather and recover from increasingly frequent extreme events. It’s something you can build a broad coalition around. Resilience is now built into the architecture of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Avoiding the increasing costs of humanitarian assistance is a key motivation for them.
Resistance—pushing back against the forces that put us at risk of those extreme events, and some of us much more than others—is harder to rally the forces around. But resilience will only serve us so long when the psychological and natural resources on which it draws are undermined again and again.
Resistance has to come from many sources, in different forms. One, pioneered in this country, uses the courts. In 2015, the NGO Urgenda launched a civil action against the Dutch state. It claimed the government is knowingly exposing citizens to a danger it recognizes, and can be held accountable for not taking sufficient action to prevent foreseeable harm.
The government and Urgenda agreed about the danger of a rise of more than 2.0oC. To avoid it, The Netherlands had already committed itself to reducing emissions by 25 to 40% from 1990 levels by 2020. Urgenda argued The Netherlands was on track to miss even the 25% target and needed more ambitious measures. The government said that was a matter of policy into which the court had no business intruding.
The District Court ruled in favour of Urgenda, and the Hague Court of Appeal upheld the verdict in October. It relied not on the Civil Code argument of negligence but on the stronger one of the rights to life and to a secure family life guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which The Netherlands is a signatory.
Both courts rejected the government’s argument that the Dutch portion of global emissions is tiny. It’s an argument heard in Canada from opponents of the carbon tax. The courts ruled that the government is obliged to control what is produced in the country, however small its contribution to the aggregate ills. The ruling helps overcome the inertia that a what-about-the-others defence leads to.
The Appeal Court’s decision was greeted with whoops and cheers. Its implications reach far beyond The Netherlands’ narrow borders. The right to life that the judgement invokes is recognized in many constitutions, including Section 7 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15, which guarantees equality before and under the law, could be used to challenge the disproportionate effects of climate law and policy on particular groups. Canadian governments’ failure to curtail emissions that they know to be dangerous (Canada is much farther behind its pledges than The Netherlands) is already having a greater impact on Indigenous people’s lives and livelihoods than others’, and younger people will feel the worsening effects more than older generations.
Last fall, the NGO ENJEU announced a class action suit on behalf of Quebec citizens under the age of 35. Acknowledging Urgenda, it challenged the Canadian government for insufficient action on climate change, invoking the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms. Both guarantee rights to life and security; the Quebec Charter also establishes the right to live in a healthful environment.
The Dutch government is taking the Urgenda case to the Supreme Court. It’s committed to executing the judgement, but wants a declaration on a principle: “Can the judge take over the politician’s chair?” Urgenda wants the government to get on with governing and get out of court. But it’s rough weather out there, as they’re finding in France.
The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) are resisting French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed fuel tax, a cornerstone of his transition écologique. It’s intended to change people’s behaviour, for example, with incentives to use public transport. But there’s not much of that in the small towns and villages where many of the Gilets Jaunes come from. It’s not just the tax: the anger that drives the movement is rooted in the long-perceived bias favouring the wealthy and corporations. A real transition has to build on and support people’s innovation, not just nudge them. The risk from policies that get it wrong is captured in a slogan painted on a Paris wall late last year: “La crise climatique est une guerre contre les pauvres”.Michael Loevinsohn is an applied ecology researcher based in Wageningen, The Netherlands. This post originally appeared on Island Word, a regional newspaper serving the Comox Valley in British Columbia. Reprinted with the author’s permission.