Monthly Archives: November 2011

Local Facets of the Environmental Problem

Smoke and Gas for Burning Automobile Batteries in 1972

Over at The Atlantic, you can find a sample of 46 photos taken in the 1970s, under the auspices of the then-newly created EPA.  These photos, taken between 1971 and 1974 show domestic manifestations of the global environmental crisis: mountains of damaged oil drums; a virtual blanket of parked automobiles; a fish, twisted and deformed from mercury poisoning; oil wells dotting Galveston Bay in Texas, site of a terrible oil spill in 1990 (bonus: there is a picture here of a couple swimming in the Bay, indicating its history as a site of recreation and nature enjoyment).

See, too, evidence of the racial and class injustice prevalent in environmental problems.  Industrial smog squatting, visibly, on a black neighborhood in Alabama.  A miner’s child, outhouses visible in the background, whose father was participating in a strike against unsafe working conditions, labor exploitation, and exposure to pollution caused by the practices of Eastover Coal Company.

A visual understanding of what environmental harm means, I think, is necessary to understand what the political debate on regulation is about.  It’s not just about jobs, profit margins, and esoteric wonkery.  It is, fundamentally, about life.

Blogging Durban: Day 2 (Nov 29)


Durban, South Africa

Now I’m beginning to regret this.  Sorting through the various press releases is consuming far more time than initially planned – combined with what looks like a thorough lack of political will for meaningful progress, this may be a bad week.  In any case, here’s a summary of some of the highlights of Day 2 in Durban.

A Reminder: The Emissions Gap

Six days ago, Achim Steiner (current Executive Director of UNEP) reiterated a concern that the international society is moving insufficiently slowly towards ameliorating the climate problem.  In particular, Steiner illustrated that, if we don’t commit to meaningful action, we are likely to experience an Emissions Gap in 2020.

To recall, the goal of the current round of climate debates is to hold the increase in global temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius above average.  One way to think about this figure can be summarized in an Emissions Gap Report (included downloadable PDF files) published by UNEP earlier this year: in short, the most likely way we will attain a manageable climate is by restricting the total atmospheric emissions of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) to 44 Gigatonnes (Gt) in 2020.  At present, business-as-usual will mean a total accumulation of possibly 56 Gt.  Alarmingly, even if states complied with the current most optimistic interpretations of the Copenhagen and Cancún Agreements, we will still have an Emissions Gap of about 5 Gt of CO2e, torpedoing the goal of stabilizing the climate.  You can get a look at a nifty interactive map tracking country pledges, including the optimistic scenarios here.

So, what are the delegates and participants saying?

Ad-Hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol

The AWG-KP, established in 2005 by Decision 1/CMP.1 (PDF) of the Kyoto Protocol – explicitly to promote a binding agreement and avoid an implementation gap among commitments from Annex I Parties – met for the first time in this COP today.  Their mission seems doomed from the outset, given (as mentioned yesterday and several times before), the demonstrated lack of interest among many Parties in creating a binding agreement to begin immediately after 2012.  In fact, given the timeframe it takes for a treaty to be negotiated, signed, ratified, and entered into force, the AWG-KP has quite a Quixotic task at the moment.  However, despair is not evident in their eyes.

The Chair of the AWG-KP starts off stating that he is still committed to the idea of creating a binding agreement in fact.  What do the delegates at the AWG-KP have to say about this?

The Argentinian delegate, speaking on behalf of the G-77 + China reaffirms the position of the bloc: “The political commitment of the G-77 + China to a second commitment period after the Kyoto Protocol remains firm.”  Not surprisingly, while asserting that developing countries are interested in doing something to address climate change, the commitment period will/should focus on the HICs, in the interest of “…science, equity, and historical responsibilities.”  In short, invoking the possibility of an Amendment to Annex B, which applies emissions reductions only to Annex I- namely developing countries – the stated goal of the G-77 is to focus on the contribution, and hence responsibility, of the Global North to the current crisis.

Australia, speaking for the Umbrella Group, notes that collectively, Annex I Parties are on target to comply with the Kyoto Protocol.  Hysterical.  This is true technically, but only because the target (a collective cut in emissions of 5% below 1990 levels), was achieved primarily by the collapse of the post-Soviet economies (see earlier post).  In any case, speaking for the Umbrella Group, Australia asserts that the work of the AWG-KP should be concluded, but in a way that does away with the current focus of the KP: reflecting earlier statements by the EU, the KP is criticized as a regulatory regime that regulates a small minimum (25%) of global emissions.

Switzerland wants all countries to commit to a binding agreement; the EU similarly calls for a binding agreement, building on the KP, but again reaffirming the need of “…all Parties…” (i.e., the LDCs) to commit to stated, explicit obligations.  Indeed, the idea of a binding agreement is essential to the EU’s statements, observing that the KP “…is the only international climate agreement with legally binding emissions targets.  It has proved to work.”  Not sure about the basis of the last statement – quite possibly invoking the ‘technical compliance’ with the goals of the 5% reduction from 1990 levels mentioned by Australia.

The Climate Action Network

This time, let’s hear from some NGO participants.  The following participants presented under the rubric of Climate Action Network – International (CAN-I).  Tove Ryding from Greenpeace; Rashmi Mistry from OxFam South Africa; Mohamed Adow from Christian Aid; One of the positive developments of the global environmental governance structure is the willingness to engage with the global civil society.  Contrast this with the institutions of international trade, for example.

In any case, Ryding reiterates what a lot of environmental activists seem to believe 1) the KP is “…what we have that describes how we reduce emissions.  It’s the outcome of 17 years of negotiations.”; 2) that “…we need a larger regime to be built.  So, in addition to the KP, we need a new, legally binding agreement, to be adopted no later than 2015…” in order that “…the KP comes out of here alive.”

Ouch!  Ryding representative takes some well-deserved shots at Canada, noting 1) their abdication from the KP has made them the “…laughing stock…” of the conference, and 2) condemning their commitment to the Tar Sands development (Keystone XL, in other words) which Canada described as “…ethical oil.”  Moreover, for the first time, someone describes the Copenhagen Accord as a meaningless document, contrasting with the interesting love-fest it had been receiving from the state delegates.

Rashmi Mistry from OxFam, co-presenter, calls for a carbon tax on global transportation to 1) cut down on emissions; 2) generate immediate funds for LDCs in a Green Climate Fund.  Ostensibly, this could lead to $10 billion a year, which would go some way towards supporting the transition, particularly among the poorest countries, which are also those most vulnerable to climate change catastrophes.  Mohamed Adow similarly calls for strengthening the “rulebook,” such that South Africa does not become the “…burial place of the KP,” invoking Shaka Zulu, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Prophet Noah throughout his presentation.  Someone prepared nifty soundbites ahead of time.

Anyway, drama!  Enemies!  Alliances!  Where will it go from here?  Let’s find out tomorrow.  In the meantime, here’s my theme song for the Durban conference:

Blogging Durban: Day 1 (Nov 28)

Climate Change Negotiations at COP-17 of the UNFCCC


Because I have a taste for masochism, I’ve decided to blog the entire Durban conference, and discuss it here.  Good times!  Well, I teach environmental politics, so I suppose there is no way to avoid being on top of this…

So, this day marks the period in which the participants lay out their general policy positions.  In the interest of time and space (I still have my own work to take care of), I’ll only cover a few countries each day.  Overview: nothing really unexpected, when looking at the statements of some of the big players.  The US wants a binding agreement to apply to the LDCs; Brazil and the G-77 want the HICs to pay for most of the action, and the EU is somewhere, comparatively speaking, in the middle.  The major surprise was Canada, which is actually a pretty poor country, in terms of climate change.  Not only are they laggards in regime negotiations, they are also one of the top emitters of GHGs per capita, barely below that of the United States (PDF).  Bad, Canada!  Bad!  And now for more detail:

Oh, Canada

Yesterday, the Canadian government made a pretty interesting statement: the government will pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, in part because of the lack of binding agreements applied to LDCs.  This certainly strikes a significant blow to the already fleeting hopes that a new agreement would be signed.  Again, it seems very unlikely that anything new will be created before 2020 (so, one wonders what the scope of this COP is – at best, some new framework, or perhaps an elaboration of the Copenhagen Accord?).

Brazilian Press Briefing

The Brazilian representative seemed very interested in linking the current climate change COP with other environmental treaties: the ambassador mentioned Rio+20 and the upcoming COPs on the Convention on Biological Diversity, indicating perhaps, a comprehensive look at global environmental problems.

In response to a question about whether Brazil would be interested in committing to a binding regime (one that would apply to LDCs), the ambassador deferred, stating instead that his government would try to come to some consensus within the G-77 + China about LDC commitments in any future period.  At the same time, he called for increased attention to climate change, even in the face of the global credit crisis.  To be sure, his call for attention and action emphasize that the primary responsibility will have to come from the HICs.  In short, the ambassador states “…the Annex I countries are the ones that have created the patterns that now tend to be followed by most of the persons.  So, the Annex I countries have to take the lead in the sense, also, of showing that there is a sustainable way to go ahead…”

It sounds in particular, that he is linking the solutions to the global credit crisis with solutions to climate change – calling for Northern support for “sustainable development” in LDCs certainly invokes some of the unfulfilled promises made at UNCED in 1992 for financial support for environmentally friendly economic growth among the poor nations of the world.

USA Press Briefing

The Deputy Special Envoy of Climate Change, Jon Pershing from the US State Department invoked the Cancún statement in pledging to create a Green Climate Fund, and support for adaptation funds.  Moreover, despite the vagueness of (or, perhaps because of) the commitments in the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancún Agreements, the US pledges to fully implement the goals stated therein.  However, right off the bat, he asserted that there must be binding obligations assessed to LDCs, affirming that it must apply to “…all significant emitters,” obviously code for India, China, and Brazil (among others), invoking the Byrd-Hagel Resolution.

While not necessarily rejecting binding agreements per se, he seemed leery of the push towards a hard law regime.  Some of this, it should be noted, is based on the US delegation’s analysis that it will be very difficult to get meaningful commitment to a binding regime, and an argument that non-binding regimes may be a better way of generating political will among states.  Shades of Underdal and Victor!

In a positive direction, however, the US administration is now explicitly recognizing the science behind climate change (which may be news to domestic policymakers), and in a question from the audience about US resistance to science, the Special Envoy sounded a little testy.  Moreover, he made an explicit argument that, while much of the current dialogue focuses on attaining action up until 2020, there must be long term commitment (including financial support in the figure of at least $100 billion) to combating climate change.

EU Press Briefing

Tomasz Chruszczow, head of the Polish delegation, sounds really hoarse.  At the same time, he sounds adamant that what are needed are “…immediate actions on the ground…” to hold the increase in global climate temperatures to 2degrees Celsius above the global norm.  Again, invoking Cancún, he called for operationalizing financial commitments to LDCs.

He takes a slightly different tack from the USA: emphasizing the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” he asserts that what is needed is a binding framework that incorporates all actors, but treats some (developing countries) differently from the HICs.  Renge-Metzer also notes that we need to cut emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by 2020 (bringing to mind the First Assessment Report of the IPCC).  Echoing the USA however, Chruszczow notes that the Kyoto Protocol is a pretty poor model for an agreement – since it only applies binding obligations on Annex I countries (exempting the USA, Russia, China and India), it governs only 25% of the world’s emissions, of which 11% are in the EU.  Thus, 75% of global emissions are not regulated by the Kyoto Protocol.  In his words: “…Kyoto alone cannot save the planet,” but it is clear that a binding commitment is sought for.

In a move that overlaps with the Brazilian delegate’s position, he invokes the EU’s involvement in providing Official Development Assistance (ODA) as a means to support environmentally friendly sustainable development.  Artur Runge-Metzer, his co-presenter, takes up this point, illustrating that “fast-start finance” is particularly necessary to change short-term practices, talking up the EU’s provision of about $4billion to LDCs under the aegis of climate change to reduce emissions from industry and deforestation.  Africa, in particular, is targeted for bilateral aid.  Notably, however, the EU delegates are stressing that aid must be in loans and support private sector investments and the free market.

In a question asked about Canada’s abdication from the Kyoto Protocol, the EU delegates are similarly sanguine about this event, noting that Canada was not particularly interested in committing to anything after Kyoto at this point.  Nevertheless, the EU is expressing confidence in the political process.

To close it out, here’s a clip of highlights from the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, as of yesterday:

(Addendum: one of my students, in response to the notification that I will be covering this, wrote: “Warning warning UNFCCC jargon/nearsightedness/intrinsic Northern hegemony guaranteed to harm your health, crush your soul and undermine your spirit. Previous attendees and followers of conferences recommend taking up martial arts or hibernating instead.” This may yet prove prophetic.)

No Binding Agreement on Climate Change ’til 2020?

Rajenda Pichauri, current head of the IPCC

It’s been a very mild fall, so far. Up until last week, we’ve had temperatures in the 60s here in Vermont.  Very pleasant, but not entirely becalming.  So, now that we’ve finally had some snow, and – alhamdulillah – a break from work, I can take the kids out and enjoy some of what makes the New England winters bearable.

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with one of my students: as of this Sunday, the rich nations have essentially given up on trying to negotiate a binding agreement for the post-Kyoto period.  As a result, next week’s round of climate talks in Durban, South Africa is unlikely to end with new commitments to address climate change after the Protocol expires in 2012.  At present, the optimistic scenario is that an agreement might be signed and enter into force at the earliest, 2020.

The Usual Suspects

The usual suspects are to blame for this impasse.  Developed nations are essentially making the argument enshrined in the US’ own Byrd-Hagel Resolution – that any future agreement must include binding targets for less developed countries (LDCs).  LDCs counter with the observations that 1) given the long lifetime of GHGs (over 100 years for CO2), and 2) the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor made possible by rampant industrialization, the richer nations are primarily responsible for the current predicament.  Indeed, one study by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies carried out for the scientific advisory body for the UNFCCC assessed that the industrialized world, with 15% of the world’s population, is responsible for 64 – 70% of current global warming (PDF).  Consequently, any action taken by LDCs should be voluntary, not mandatory, and should be accompanied with far more financial and technical assistance such that the costs of environmental regulation do not harm nascent economies.

Concerned observers note that without a binding agreement, it is unlikely that nations will be willing to cut emissions after 2012.  Problematically, we currently have an accumulation of 389ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.  Further, according to the IPCC and the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA, we are adding more CO2 at the rate of 1.9ppm per year – by 2020, we will have, at that rate, 406ppm of CO2, or just over the 400ppm recommended to keep an increase of global mean temperatures below 2 degrees above the current norm.


So what’s the upshot?  Those in favor of institutions note that they are potentially extremely helpful in regulating international problems.  In short, they institutionalize monitoring, provide transparency, encourage iterated discussions among parties, and provide consistent benchmarks against which progress can be measured.  On the other hand, skeptics counter that this begs the question: why should we assume that the requirements encoded in institutions are meaningful?  Indeed, some say that the tendency in international regimes is that states are likely to commit only to institutions and obligations that satisfy the least ambitious among them.  Problematically, the rules encoded in such unambitious institutions are probably going to be ineffective solutions at best.  As a result, the best bet is that sufficient global attention around the issue has been generated that domestic populations will independently drive improved behavior.  A long shot, but perhaps more likely than hoping for a serious international agreement.

A New World Record!

Stunning news!  Not really surprising though (nor necessarily encouraging), but here it is.  In the most recent bulletin by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issued at the time of writing (Monday, November 21, 2011), data show a steady increase in the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere (PDF). At present, we are at 389 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2, the highest recorded in the past 10,000 years.

At present, this is substantially higher than the 350ppm hoped for by, a transnational science and advocacy network, but still within the range deemed acceptable by the Fourth Assessment Report (AR-4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – namely 350 – 400ppm, as described in their Summary for Policymakers (PDF).  For clarity’s sake, this is the range in which most scientists feel we have the best change at stabilizing the projected increase in global temperatures at 2 degrees above the current average.  Further, as indicated in the bulletin, it is assumed that the 350 – 400 CO2 level would correspond with a similar leveling of other GHGs, such as methane, sulfur hexafluoride, and nitrous oxide, such that we would have a total accumulation of 445 – 490ppm of CO2 equivalent.

Hot Like Fire

It goes without saying that, even if we took the slightly-less-alarmist AR-4 as the better predictor, we would still be in dire straits.  To get to that level, we would need to cut global emissions by 50% – 85% of 2000 levels.  Further, this assumes that we would not dramatically raise the amount of other GHGs in the atmosphere.  While CO2 is usually held up as the bad boy of the atmosphere (and is currently responsible for about 70 – 80% of current anthropogenic warming), data held by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) show that the other GHGs are more powerful warmers, based on ppm, than CO2.  (This is due to their longevity, as well as chemical makeup).  Unfortunately, these show no sign of decreasing and some, like HFCs, are increasing at alarming rates.

Theoretically, we still have time to act.  Politically, engendering the will to do so is another question.  Part of this depends on our disposition to alarming data – will these trends cause apathy, alarm, or disdain?  We don’t know to a certainty what all this means, but the problem is too many people take this to mean we don’t know anything.  One way or the other, we’re going to find out.  We are, after all, to borrow from Roger Revelle, “…carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment” with the atmosphere.  I suppose that, for those skeptical about climate science theories, the logical thing to do is to take the experiment to its conclusion.

Environmentalists Need Better Music

I was thinking about the impending return of the US Army from Iraq, and listening to one of the best anti-war songs ever.  “Hell Broke Luce” by Tom Waits.  Check it out below:

Yet, for some reason, it’s extremely difficult to find music that’s as driven and angry as that about the environment.  Why?  It’s  not for lack of severity of the issue.  Clearly, war and conflict bring death and misery to millions.  But so does environmental catastrophe.  In fact, as far back as 1994, Robert Kaplan argued that environmental scarcity, worsened in the coming years by population increases, rapid growth in consumption, and depleted resources, would lead to conflict.  More recently, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a security-based think tank in DC, echoed Kaplan, indicating that environmental and energy concerns should be a matter of top priority (PDF) given the emerging relationship between natural resources and warfare.

However, short of a slew of angry songs that came out directly in response to Hurricane Katrina (Public Enemy!), environmental music tends to be fairly tepid.  Don’t get me wrong – I like Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi as much as the next guy, but I wish the environmental movement had songs that sounded less like polite missives and genteel observations, and more like anger about the current state of affairs.  (And Lord, do not get me started on the horror that is the Counting Crows version).  Indeed, given the link between environmental mismanagement and other sociopolitical areas that inspire fury – racism, classism, inequality – the lack of vehemence is even more surprising.  I’d love to be proven wrong, but so far, driven music is the exception, not the norm.

So, here are two of the exceptions: “DDT” by Suicide Machines (corporate greed and the promulgation of toxins) and “Countdown to Extinction” by Megadeth (rampant biodiversity loss).  Enjoy.


Countdown to Extinction

Is This Progress?

One Tiny Step Forward…

If you’ve been following the Keystone XL Pipeline development, you probably heard two things that seem like positive environmental developments.  First, the corporation behind the development of the project, agreed to reroute the planned pipe such that it will no longer run through the Nebraska Sand Hills region.  Potentially good news for Nebraskan environmentalists, ranchers, conservationists, who raised concerns about the impact of subterranean oil on the Ogallala aquifer, described as “…a massive subterranean waterway that underlies 27% of the irrigated land in the U.S.”

Nebraskan Rancher in the Sand Hills



Second, the Obama administration and the State Department recently announced that the project would be sent back for review, citing the environmental and socioeconomic considerations raised by the specter of continued oil dependency and dirty extraction.

…And One Giant Leap Back

However, any optimism about these developments should be severely tempered.  While the guaranteed protection of the Ogallala aquifer is a good thing, the obvious question that emerges is, why were they threatened in the first place?  Moreover, a careful examination of the State Department’s announcement on the Pipeline clearly indicates that the delay 1) is primarily to find a less contentious route for the proposed oil; 2) times the final decision-making such that the policy will be determined after the election.  A more cynical person than I would suggest that Obama is primarily trying not to alienate his remaining progressive-environmentalist constituency, while intending to go ahead with it anyway.  But, if the next President is a Republican, well, the possibility of the Pipeline becomes a certainty.

An Eminently Reasonable Man

Take a look at the rhetoric surrounding the issue: obviously, you have industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute stating that the Pipeline will create “…thousands of jobs almost immediately,” something that has to be a concern for Obama given his poll figures as of late.

More colorfully, Rick Perry has pointed out that our dependence on foreign oil, much of it produced by nationalized companies in countries such as Saudia Arabia, places American troops and security at risk.  We strengthen hostile regimes, because we fill up our SUVs with their product.  (Ironically, this is an argument made by environmentalists for reducing oil consumption – inimical to the Keystone XL).

Something Else to Keep in Mind

In any case, despite the superficial progress, there are a plethora of well-reasoned objections, on clearly stated environmental grounds, to the project as a whole – not just the proposed expansion through the Sand Hills.  In the Colbert Report, Middlebury’s own Bill McKibben critiques the whole idea of the project.

Adding Insult to Injury: the First Nations and Injustice

One final point: while McKibben’s argument is sound, it seems as if there was not enough time on the Report to get into one of the more troubling aspects (to me) of the whole production of the Keystone.  Even if we were guaranteed that the transit of oil were safe in the US, oil extraction is severely problematic for the people who live near the tar sands: indigenous and First Nations peoples.

As can be seen in this report by the NRDC (TarSandsInvasion-full [PDF]), the extraction of oil from tar sands is immensely hazardous to the local ecosystems upon which indigenous people depend.  Air pollution, and the seepage of toxins into groundwater, aquifers, and local ecosystems have led to high rates of cancer, asthma, acid rain, and the accumulation of toxins such as cyanide and ammonia.  Not surprisingly, and as is the case in the US, indigenous people in Canada are at the lower end of the socioeconomic totem pole.  It is important to keep in mind, when we think about environmental problems, that some populations are more vulnerable than others.  Thinking about the Keystone XL (and other environmental issues) should raise questions, not just about consumption, local ecosystems, and wellbeing – but also about demographics and social identity.  Who benefits?  Who loses?  Do certain populations lose more?  In so doing, we should oppose environmentally harmful projects, not just on the basis of ecological concerns, but also on the basis of human rights, justice, and socioeconomic equity.

Another Reason to Hate Expendables 2 Before it Comes Out

Bats Are Awesome

If you’re like me, you remember 2010 as a year of unheralded promise.  That was the year that The Greatest Action Stars on Earth (Lundgren!  Stallone!  Rourke!  Statham!  Even their names sound like punching) promised us the most steroid-driven movie ever.  The Expendables!  Boom!  Killing!  However, instead of wall-to-wall, brightly lit explosions and snappy one-liners (like “Stick around”), we got a dull, turgid, impenetrable affair.

Inevitably, the movie made its money back, and then some, so the Hollywood Machine has decided (sigh) to crank out a sequel.  Why not?  Industry bloat and guaranteed rates of return.  Well, it turns out that, in addition to lowering my expectations to Judge Dredd levels, Expendables 2 (Van Damme!  Norris!),

A Great Site for Some Killin

currently in production, is also coming under environmental criticism.  Part of the shooting schedule takes place near the Devetashka Cave in Bulgaria, which happens to be habitat to 40 endangered bat species, and one of the top 3 bat colonies in Europe.

As of right now, the producers have already paid fines for cutting shrubbery near the cave, and have promised to “…refrain from explosions, car chases and fires near the cave.”  Fair enough.  Hopefully they can also refrain from making a terrible movie.

Corporate Personhood: Can it Work for Environmental Justice?

Corporations, Like Soylent Green, Are People

For many, the 2010 decision of the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC (PDF)  seemed like a further step in the reification of corporations.  Briefly, the decision held that it was unconstitutional to restrict the political speech of corporations (read: spending on political campaigns), as doing so violated the First Amendment rights of persons within the United States – the underlying assertion is that corporations are legal persons.  Critics pointed out that the norm of corporate personhood – giving corporate entities legal rights equivalent to those of ordinary citizens – would likely mean the concentration of political power in the hands of corporate CEOs and the wealthy.  Well, it turns out that, in addition to empowering them, the norm of corporate personhood may be used to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

Background: Environmental Injustice and Shell in Nigeria

In the 1990s, oil exploration in Nigeria was a travesty of environmental injustice.  In the Nigerian Delta, the practice of extraction was incredibly dirty – oil spills, and gas flaring devastated the local environment, and displaced residents.  Moreover, the federal government of Nigeria monopolized the control of national oil wealth, giving a disproportionately low share to the residents of states in which oil exploration was taking place.

To make matters worse, Shell, seeking to maintain oil extraction, facilitated the displacement and murder of residents of the Delta region, largely of the Ogoni tribe.  As indicated in this book excerpt (PDF), Shell contractors bulldozed farmland and houses in order to gain access to oil-producing land.  When people protested, they were shot by the Nigerian army.  When they protested those shootings, they were shot.  When they blocked the community to further oil exploration, the Nigerian army and police went to ‘dialogue’ with the community, and they were shot.  In these instances, army and police officers were paid field allowances by Shell, who later wrote to “reiterate our appreciation for the excellent co-operation we have received from the Nigerian Police Force in helping to preserve the security of our operations.”  This pattern continued until several people were killed, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, poet, author, television personality, and environmental activist.

Hold Them Accountable

In response, a transnational coalition of Ogoni people and American legal advocacy agencies sued Shell, starting in the 1990s, for complicity in these atrocities.  Here’s the kicker: they cited a two centuries old law, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which allows aliens to sue in federal district courts for “…a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”  A decade and a half later, the case seemed to stall, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the charges, asserting in a majority opinion that, despite the clear violation of human rights law, and despite the seriousness of the claims, corporations could not be considered “juridical persons (PDF)” when it became time to hold them accountable for their actions. 

However, on October 16th, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on appeal.  At the heart of it, this case raises the question of whether corporations can have the rights of citizens without their corresponding responsibilities.  Obviously, the most optimistic outcome, and one which we will find out next year after the case is concluded, is that the SCOTUS finds that corporations are, in fact, liable for human rights violations – that at least would indicate some conceptual consistency among the conservative branch.  If, however, they find that Shell is not liable, as non-juridical persons under international law, it may expose the hypocrisy and emptiness at the core of the idea of corporate rights.

It Can Be Done

Chipko Women

A lot of the news on environmental management and conservation tends to be pretty grim.  For those concerned about climate change, for example, continued political, corporate, and industrial resistance to the call for increased regulation is disheartening and frustrating.

But, there are examples of successful environmental movements.  One of those is the Chipko (lit: “tree hugger”) movement of India.  Very briefly, the 1970s and 1980s in India were characterized by state-sponsored development projects – that is, governmental sponsorship of infrastructure and extractive practices in the interest of economic growth.  In Uttar Pradesh, this meant rampant deforestation, legitimated by the Indian Forestry Department, for the production of commercial timber – used in paper, railway construction, sports goods, and so on.

Forests and the Environment

As most people are aware, deforestation carries with it, multiple environmental impacts.  First, and most obvious, is that forests are an important source of biodiversity, both by virtue of the diversity in flora species that make up a forest, and by virtue of their function as habitats.  According to UNEP, forests comprise 50% of terrestrial biodiversity.  Second, forest loss can contribute to other, attendant problems, such as land degradation: as trees are removed, soil becomes vulnerable to erosion, flooding, and landslides.  Third, as well recognized by the UNFCCC, forests can act as ‘carbon sinks,’ storing carbon dioxide, and preventing greater atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Forests and Socioeconomic Inequity in Uttar Pradesh

But adding insult to injury, the quest for “national development” via deforestation and timber industries was socioeconomically inequitable.  The forests had served as a source of subsistence and silviculture for traditional communities living in the area.  Not only were they not incorporated into the aprovechamiento of benefits garnered by capitalist timber production, they lost access to traditional livelihoods when local agriculture,food production, and environmental security were overridden in the interest of commercial timber, as seen here (PDF).

Gendered Resistance

But the residents of Uttar Pradesh were not helpless.  In an uplifting display of bravery and solidarity, local residents – primarily women – confronted timber interests using nonviolence.  They intervened between corporate-state interests and environmental degradation, literally inserting themselves between logging companies and the trees.  Hence the name Chipko – they hugged the trees.

From an environmental perspective, the end result was heartening.  There was a 15 year ban on commercial cutting in some areas; a moratorium on clear-felling in others, such as in the Western Ghats.  From a socioeconomic perspective as well, the movement was encouraging.  By sheer virtue of the fact that women were some of the primary drivers of Chipko, the movement emphasized the agency of women, and centered them as important actors in the politics of social resistance.   Further, as can be surmised, this also meant the privileging of local production in the shadow of inequitable and unsustainable capitalist expansion.  So, it can be done.  The fact that women, of a marginalized and disempowered traditional society, can confront unsustainable resource extraction – even when supported by government interests – should encourage us all to at as good environmental stewards.  Even if it’s difficult.