This week, more than 25,000 people gather at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow to address what is not only a global environmental catastrophe, but a global crisis of justice. In a series of four articles, Orion contributor and former board member Kathleen Dean Moore reports on an international human rights court ruling that transnational fossil fuel corporations and governments, in collusion, are directly violating rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
IN JUNE 2021, Bert Iyatunguk, age thirty-two, died after his snow machine sank in an open lead in the ice near Shishmaref Lagoon, on the northwest coast of Alaska. Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe; weaker sea ice, stronger storms, and wider leads of open water are threatening people’s lives—and killing them.
As temperatures around Portland, Oregon, reached an unimaginable 124 degrees, Sebastian Francisco Perez, age thirty-eight, collapsed and died in a tree nursery where he was moving irrigation pipe. Assuming current greenhouse gas emissions, extreme heat will threaten 1.2 billion people by 2100, according to a Rutgers report.
Alan Kurdi, age three, drowned when his crowded boat overturned in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. His family was fleeing Syria, where intense heat and prolonged drought exacerbates political instability and poverty. By 2050, climate-related political catastrophes could make 1.2 billion people into climate refugees.
Fikile Ntshangase, sixty-five, was murdered in her living room in South Africa. She had been campaigning against the extension of a coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal province. At least 227 environmental activists were murdered in 2020, as they tried to save the forests, rivers, and wetlands that might slow global warming.
The list goes on.
Unless the nations of the world can agree to reduce carbon emissions, an estimated 83 million people will die from the effects of climate change by the end of this century.
Eighty-three million people will die from the effects of climate change by the end of this century.
All persons have the right to life . . .
Of all the human rights encoded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most fundamental is the right to life. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.” This entails, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, that “States should . . . take effective measures against foreseeable and preventable loss of life.”
The foreseeable and preventable dangers to life are both direct and indirect. The increasing severity of weather due to global warming substantially increases the direct danger of disasters such as heavy storms, wildfires, powerful hurricanes, flooding, severe cold, and heat waves. Among indirect threats from climate change are the spread of new pathogens, along with dangers of malnutrition and starvation from crop failure, political instability, sea level rise, and the degradation of life-sustaining ecosystems that shade cities, filter water, feed people and livestock, and protect coasts from erosion. When states fail to take measures against these threats, they fail to protect the right to life.
The right to life is primary and fundamental.
When the nations of the world signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they were making an important point about the value of human life: its value is beyond measure. Affirming that people have the right to life puts humans outside of the transactional world of buying and trading. A human life is not a chit, something that can be cashed in for something else. It is a set of possibilities that each person holds as a birthright—to love, to dream, to suffer, to sing, to persevere with courage and dignity, to fulfill the promise of their birth.
A human life is not a chit,
something that can be cashed in for something else.
It will not do to say it’s too bad that millions of people will die in this century and uncounted more in the future, but that is the price we have to pay to stay in a business that will earn $2.1 trillion this year, as it keeps the lights on and the world economy growing. That is particularly untenable, when alternative ways of keeping the lights on are cheaper, cleaner, and readily available. It’s even more untenable when the cult of endless economic growth in a finite world is fundamentally irrational.
The moral logic of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that if corporate or government activity cannot be done without taking human lives, then it cannot be done in a moral universe. It violates basic standards of human decency affirmed by the collective wisdom of the world.
Gas and oil executives and their government allies are responsible for rights violations.
Hearing testimony in a 2018 Special Session on Human Rights, Fracking, and Climate Change, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, an international human rights court, named climate change as “the main global threat to the survival of the human species and consequently to the exercise of all human rights.” The tribunal determined that the responsibility for the rights violations lies with decisions of transnational oil and gas company executives, reinforced by the cooperation of state actors:
The evidence is clear that the unconventional oil and gas extraction industry has violated main provisions of the substantive and procedural international human rights law . . . and threatens the enjoyment of all human rights of the present and future generations through their direct contribution to climate change.
The chains of events that drowned Bert Iyatunguk, stopped Sebastian Francisco Perez’s heart, drowned little Alan Kurdi, and left Fikile Ntshangase bleeding on her living room floor are long and complex. They are complicated by Big Oil’s unceasing attempts to off-load possible blame onto consumers for buying fossil fuels, even as corporations manipulate markets and politics to ensure few alternatives.
But justice systems, including international human rights tribunals, are accustomed to assigning responsibility in cases with complex chains of causation. Hurricanes kill. Melting ice kills. Heat kills. So do cigarettes, opioids, and, yes, guns. However, none of these violate the right to life. Rights violations require moral agents who fully understand the short- and long-term violative consequences of their actions and makes a decision to act nonetheless.
Accordingly, courts have traced responsibility for cancer deaths to cigarette manufacturers, and responsibility for overdose deaths to opioid magnates. Who are the agents of climate deaths? Responsibility falls on the leaders of the transnational oil and gas corporations, and those governments that fail in their fundamental duty to restrain them. Climate change, a geophysical process, is not to blame; blame belongs to those who choose to create the conditions for climate change, even as they understand the massive human rights violations it will inflict.
International human rights court slams states for complicity in corporate violations of the right to life.
The advisory opinion of the tribunal went on to excoriate states for failing to protect citizens, present and future, from those actions of the oil and gas industry that pose an imminent threat to their lives.
Too often, governments and oil and gas industries are joined in an “axis of betrayal,” the tribunal wrote, where both benefit from the economic bonanza made possible by human rights violations. Evidence presented in the hearings showed that, in the name of promised “economic development,” Big Oil corporations are allowed to violate rights either “under what have become symbolic environmental laws that have been implemented to allow [practices] or . . . in violation of such laws but with impunity from the state.” States fail to perform their regulatory function “for any number of reasons, especially financial but also ideological, or corruption arising out of an inappropriate relationship with the industry to be regulated.”
Governments and oil and gas industries are joined in an “axis of betrayal.”
In principle, democratic governments are based on an exchange of promises—a social contract. The people give over certain rights to the government—unfettered liberty, for example. In exchange, the government pledges, at the very least, to make sure nobody—no individual, institution, or corporation—takes away those birthrights. Governments break the terms of the social contract when they fail to protect human rights and, worse, become complicit in their violation. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer calls double wrongs of this sort, “treachery.”
After weighing the evidence presented during the hearing, the tribunal’s conclusion is damning: government authorities in collusion with powerful corporate violators have “betrayed the people and in doing so, have made a mockery of democracy, the rule of law and the right of peoples to determine their own destiny, and that of the planet.”
When governments fail to protect human rights, who must act?
When corporations fail to honor their human rights obligations, it is the duty of the political branches of government to call them to account. When they, in turn, fail to honor their obligations to restrain corporations, where does the duty fall? Then, it is the duty of the people to take their grievances to the courts—and to the streets. When governments fail in their duties, everything depends on a mass movement of the people who, with courageous moral clarity, give full-throated voice to their pain and outrage, demanding that governments respect, protect, and fulfill their birthrights to a just and fruitful world.
Bearing Witness: The Human Rights Case Against Fracking and Climate Change, published by Oregon State University Press and edited by Thomas A. Kerns and Kathleen Dean Moore, tells the story of the landmark case through carefully curated court materials, including eyewitness testimony, legal and moral testimony, and the Tribunal’s Advisory Opinion. Essays by leading climate writers such as Winona LaDuke, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Sandra Steingraber and legal experts such as John Knox, Mary Wood, and Anna Grear give context to the controversy.
A forty-minute film about the Tribunal, Bedrock Rights: A New Foundation for Global Action Against Fracking and Climate Change, is available free online. The film, created by the Spring Creek Project, features appearances by Jacqueline Patterson, of the NAACP; Winona LaDuke, of Honor the Earth; Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream; and many others. It powerfully showcases the Tribunal’s findings that the oil and gas industry and their government allies routinely violate the right to clean water, Indigenous rights to the land, the right to life and health, and the right to information and participation. Spring Creek offers assistance to any groups that would like to hold a community screening of the film. Contact them here.
Documentary production and videography was provided by Fire+Bird Films.