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Four environmental fights to watch in 2022

BY RACHEL FRAZIN – 12/26/21 05:55 PM EST 30835Share to Facebook Share to Twitter  

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With Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) dashing Democratic hopes for major climate change and environmental legislation, pressure is increasing on the Biden administration to take significant regulatory action. 

The administration was already poised to impose stricter environmental rules, and has made progress reversing a number of Trump-era environmental rollbacks.  

But, with the apparent end of the climate and social spending bill, these regulations will carry even greater weight as the administration seeks to live up to its climate commitments. 

And they’re sure to be closely watched by potential critics on both sides of the aisle. 

Here are four environmental fights to watch next year:

Drilling for oil and gas on federal lands and waters

One of the biggest environmental fights of 2021 is expected to spill over into 2022 — whether and how to restrict leasing and permitting for oil and gas drilling on federally owned lands and in federally owned waters. 

The first drilling lease sale held under the Biden administration, which offered up 80 million acres for auction in the Gulf of Mexico, was at the center of several major battles.

The Biden administration delayed that lease sale as part of its moratorium on new oil and gas leasing. But after a court halted that moratorium, the Biden administration went through with the sale, much to the chagrin of environmental groups.

Now, these groups are poised to oppose future sales, including a proposal to auction off ocean parcels near Alaska’s coast and an expected onshore lease sale in New Mexico. 

Which waters get federal protections?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected next year to propose a rule governing which waters are regulated in the U.S.

The issue over which waters should be regulated has been a tense partisan fight for years. 

In 2015, the Obama administration expanded protections from pollution for small bodies of water, a move that proponents said provided important health and environmental safeguards.

But Republicans have described an Obama administration move to expand regulated waters as a burdensome overreach and moved to roll it back during the Trump administration. 

The Biden administration is expected to propose regulating more waters than the Trump administration, but its specific course of action isn’t totally clear. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan has pledged to not return “verbatim” to the Obama-era rule, saying that both it and the Trump rule “did not necessarily listen to the will of the people.”

But, opponents of the rules are likely to sue. A challenge could come from Republicans; and if environmentalists don’t think the rule goes far enough, they could challenge them as well. 

How much will power plant emissions be regulated?

The battle playing out over power plant emissions will likely play out through regulations and at the Supreme Court.

The EPA is expected to propose rules next year regulating emission from new and existing power plants, with both rules slated to be finalized in 2023.

The rules are anticipated to be controversial, with Republicans and industry expected to lament the cost of compliance. 

The EPA was expected to have a relatively blank slate after a lower court in January struck down a Trump-era rule.

That rule was expected to give states more time and authority compared to the Obama administration’s rule to decide how to implement technology to ease emissions from coal plants.

But in October, the Supreme Court said it would take up that case after requests from coal companies and Republican-led states. It is expected to review what tools the EPA can use to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. 

Petitioners have asked the court to review the ruling, with North Dakota arguing in a recent document that the court should reinstate the Trump-era rule. 

Will countries increase their climate commitments?

The Glasgow Climate Pact, agreed to at the 2021 COP26 climate summit, asks countries to revisit their short-term climate commitments by the end of 2022.

It requested that the countries strengthen their 2030 targets “as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal … taking into account different national circumstances.” 

Recent analyses have found that climate pledges currently put the Paris climate agreement targets out of reach. That agreement calls for limiting warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius when compared to pre-industrial levels, with the further goal of keeping warming beneath 1.5 degrees. 

Some countries that observers hope to see raise their ambition include China, Australia and Brazil. 

But it’s unclear which countries, if any, will actually increase their targets, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). The U.S., for one, has already indicated that it may not.

“You don’t automatically have to come back with a new NDC,” climate envoy John Kerry told reporters in November. “You have to review it, and, as necessary, you make a judgment about it.”

The hottest number in conservation is rooted more in politics than science

The goal to protect 30 percent of the Earth is more arbitrary than you might think.By Benji Jones  Apr 12, 2021, 7:30am EDT

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Right now, in the conservation movement, a lot of people are fixated on a single number: 30.

The US and more than 50 other countries have pledged to conserve 30 percent of their land and water by 2030 as a means to help thwart the biodiversity crisis.

Biodiversity tends to increase with the area of land or water conserved, yet just 16 percent of global land is in protected areas today (in the US, it’s closer to 12 percent), according to the World Database on Protected Areas. Intact ecosystems also play a major role in mitigating climate change.

As conservationists have recognized the importance of protecting rich ecosystems before they’re bulldozed, drained, deforested, or abandoned, “30 by 30” has become a rallying call for the movement’s most influential organizations, political leaders, and advocates.

“This effort goes to the heart of our mission to protect the wonder of our world,” Jill Tiefenthaler, CEO of the National Geographic Society, a group backing the target, said in a 2020 interview.

So, what makes 30 percent the magic number? Is it some kind of biological threshold, above which nature will flourish and we will avert total ecological collapse?

Not exactly.

As it turns out, “there’s no scientific basis for 30 percent,” Eric Dinerstein, the lead author of a widely referenced academic paper, “A Global Deal for Nature,” which calls for putting 30 percent of land in protected areas, told Vox. “It’s arbitrary.” (Disclosure: I briefly worked with Dinerstein several years ago when I was a research analyst at the World Resources Institute.)

Given the urgency of the situation, there’s an acute tension around how ambitious to be in conservation goal-setting. Often, targets laid out by scientists are at odds with what governments will find palatable. And for any goal to be successful, for that matter, many argue the world needs a new paradigm for conservation altogether — one that doesn’t exclude Indigenous people.

Why targets for protecting land and oceans are essential

As the human population has expanded, we’ve destroyed all kinds of habitats to construct housing, extract commodities like timber or gold, and grow food. That’s left us with rapidly shrinking patches of intact ecosystems that can — and do — support biodiversity, but with a fading effect.

To avert catastrophe, we’ll need to roll back that pattern and dedicate more land to support healthy, functioning ecosystems. And long ago, the conservation movement realized that to get there, countries would need to push each other to both make and keep commitments.

There are existing targets for the coverage of protected areas, set under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). CBD is an intergovernmental agreement, much like the Paris Agreement, but for biodiversity. In 2010, it set a number of conservation targets — including those that called for the protection of 17 percent of global land and 10 percent of oceans by 2020.

The reality, however, is that those smaller percentages simply aren’t enough, said Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, a group spearheading the global 30 by 30 push. (The group is funded by the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss and works in partnership with the National Geographic Society.)

The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Hawaiian Islands region, seen from Air Force One. Protections for this deepwater habitat were expanded by President Obama in 2016.

30 by 30 is by no means the first effort to protect a large chunk of Earth for the sake of biodiversity. In his 2016 book Half-Earthrenowned ecologist Edward O. Wilson argued that “only by committing half of the planet’s surface to nature can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that compose it.” (The concept of protecting 50 percent of the planet emerged decades earlier.)

But 30 by 30 is the first effort of its kind to gain such broad support.

While the target has been kicked around for years, it reached a milestone in January when a coalition of more than 50 countries led by Costa Rica, France, and the UK, called the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, announced a commitment to 30 by 30.

“We know there is no pathway to tackling climate change that does not involve a massive increase in our efforts to protect and restore nature,” said Zac Goldsmith, the UK’s minister for Pacific and the environment, when the commitment was announced.

The US is notably not part of that pact. But in his first full week in office, President Joe Biden signed a sweeping climate-related executive action that gave the Department of the Interior 90 days to come up with a plan to conserve 30 percent of American land and water. The department is set to deliver the report to the White House later this month.

“There is growing scientific consensus that we must conserve more land and water, with 30 percent representing the minimum that experts think must be conserved in order to avoid the worst impacts of nature loss to our economies and well-being,” Tyler Cherry, a spokesperson for the agency, told Vox. “President Biden has set an ambitious but achievable goal that will lift up a wide range of locally supported conservation and restoration actions, with the support of a broad range of stakeholders.”

So, 30 has no shortage of followers. Which brings us back to the debate over whether or not it’s the right number.

Why some conservationists think the 30 percent target should be higher

If this were the 1950s, 30 percent as a target would be fine, said Dinerstein, who’s now the director of the Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions program at Resolve, a Washington, DC, nonprofit. Back then, there was more time to avert an extinction crisis, and there were plenty of intact ecosystems left outside of protected areas, he said.

Now, he says, “we don’t have that luxury.” What we really need, Dinerstein believes — echoing E.O. Wilson — is to protect half of the planet.

But 50 percent is a big number to stomach, especially when only 16 percent of land worldwide currently has that status (that number is much smaller for oceans). Instead, the authors of the “Global Deal for Nature” paper called for putting 30 percent in protected areas and another 20 in what they called “climate stabilization areas” — less strictly protected areas that would help draw down emissions.

“The inside story is that we thought that 50 percent by 2030 would just be unpalatable,” Dinerstein said of the target.

By contrast, 30 percent, and the catchy “30 by 30” phrase, could attract the backing of lawmakers, even if it’s not some kind of precise threshold. Indeed, such a universal threshold doesn’t exist.

“There’s no threshold where suddenly you’re going to get a magic response,” said Corey Bradshaw, a professor of ecology at Flinders University. “You’ve got to play the politics with respect to assigning particular values to targets or thresholds. At the end of the day, it has nothing to do with biology.”

O’Donnell, however, argues that a floor of 30 percent is justified by science. What the research seems to show is that 30 percent is not a hard threshold — no one number applies across all regions. But reaching it would, indeed, benefit biodiversity, given that less than half of that is protected today. Scientists tend to agree that anything much below 30 percent is not sufficient as well. (Bradshaw also points out that a focus on percent coverage alone obscures other important aspects of conservation planning, like connectivity among areas, which can have huge impacts.)

This debate is especially relevant now. The CBD’s 196 members are preparing to convene in October, at which point they’ll consider upping the target for protected areas to 30 percent. (Absent from that member list? You guessed it — the US.)

In a statement, Johan Hedlund, an information officer at CBD, told Vox that while the “location of protected areas and their effective and equitable management is more important than simple [percentage] of land or sea area,” the 30 percent target is in line with the convention’s vision for 2050. Yet, he added, the target is still under negotiation.

Indigenous activists are more concerned with avoiding “fortress conservation” than numbers

The simple catchphrase “30 by 30” belies the many challenges to establishing acres and acres of new protected areas (PAs).

For one, effective networks of PAs require careful planning. It’s important that they represent different ecosystems and provide pathways for animals to disperse, said Bradshaw. While the US protects 22 percent of its oceans, for example, most of the PAs are in one region — around Hawaii — leaving other important ecosystems at risk.

Protected areas are also not loved by all. In fact, many Indigenous communities initially opposed 30 by 30 because they worried it would put their land rights at risk, said Andy White, a coordinator at Rights and Resources Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for land rights.

“Fundamentally, the problem is not so much the number as it is the approach,” White said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tours Bears Ears National Monument near Blanding, Utah, on April 8. Referencing her trip on Twitter, she wrote, “The earth holds so much power. We must all work together to honor it.”

The conservation movement has a long history of practicing “fortress conservation,” whereby sections of nature are blocked off at the expense of Indigenous people who use the land.

“Throughout conservation’s checkered history, we have seen exclusionary conservation as a gateway to human rights abuses and militarized forms of violence,” as José Francisco Cali Tzay, who is Maya Kaqchikel from Guatemala and the UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, said last year.

Rights and Resources Initiative published a landmark study in 2020 showing that more than 1.6 billion Indigenous people, local communities, and Afro-descendants live in important areas for biodiversity conservation. Research has also shown that, in many cases, lands managed by Indigenous people hold as much biodiversity as protected areas.

“The right way to get to 30 percent is recognizing the rights of Indigenous people to their lands,” White said.

Considering Indigenous lands as part of global conservation efforts would easily breach the 30 percent target, White added. And the mainstream conservation movement appears ready to get behind this approach.

“We need more financial investments into securing land tenure rights,” O’Donnell said. “[Indigenous peoples’] rights and their approaches need to be at the forefront of 30 by 30.”

‘Ecocide’ movement pushes for a new international crime: Environmental destruction

A growing number of world leaders advocate making ecocide a crime before the International Criminal Court, to serve as a “moral line” for the planet.

Image: Photo illustration of Deepwater Horizon, Amazon fires, city pollution, ocean oil spill and refinery exhaust.

As rainforests burn and ice sheets melt, criminalizing ecocide could serve as a deterrent for companies and governments that harm the environment, advocates say. Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty ImagesApril 7, 2021, 2:00 AM PDTBy Nicholas Kusnetz, Inside Climate News, Katie Surma, Inside Climate News and Yuliya Talmazan

This article was published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit, independent news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. It is part of “The Fifth Crime,” a series on ecocide.

In 1948, after Nazi Germany exterminated millions of Jews and other minorities during World War II, the United Nations adopted a convention establishing a new crime so heinous it demanded collective action. Genocide, the nations declared, was “condemned by the civilized world” and justified intervention in the affairs of sovereign states.

Now, a small but growing number of world leaders including Pope Francis and French President Emmanuel Macron have begun citing an offense they say poses a similar threat to humanity and remains beyond the reach of international criminal law: ecocide, or widespread destruction of the environment.

The pope describes ecocide as “the massive contamination of air, land and water,” or “any action capable of producing an ecological disaster,” and has proposed making it a sin for Roman Catholics.

The Pontiff has also endorsed a campaign by environmental activists and legal scholars to make ecocide the fifth crime before the International Criminal Court in The Hague as a legal deterrent to the kinds of far-reaching environmental damage that are driving mass extinction, ecological collapse and climate change. The monumental step, which faces a long road of global debate, would mean political leaders and corporate executives could face charges and imprisonment for “ecocidal” acts.

To make their case, advocates point to the Amazon, where fires raged out of control in 2019, and where the rainforest may now be so degraded it is spewing more climate-warming gases than it draws in. At the poles, human activity is thawing a frozen Arctic and destabilizing the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.

2019: Worldwide pleas to save the Amazon as fires devastate rainforest

AUG. 22, 201901:15

Across the globe, climate change is disrupting the reliable seasonal rhythms that have sustained human life for millennia, while hurricanes, floods and other climate-driven disasters have forced more than 10 million people from their homes in the last six months. Fossil fuel pollution has killed 9 million people annually in recent years, according to a study in Environmental Research, more than tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS combined.

One in 4 mammals are threatened with extinction. For amphibians, it’s 4 in 10.

Damage to nature has become so extensive and widespread around the world that many environmentalists speak of ecocide to describe numerous environmentally devastated hot spots:

  • Chernobyl, the Ukrainian nuclear plant that exploded in 1986 and left the now-deserted area dangerously radioactive;
  • The tar sands of northern Canada, where toxic waste pits and strip mines have replaced 400 square miles of boreal forest and boglands;
  • The Gulf of Mexico, site of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 people, spilled at least 168 million gallons of crude oil into the ocean over 87 days and killed countless marine mammals, sea turtles, fish and migratory birds;
  • The Amazon, where rapid deforestation encouraged by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro prompted Joe Biden, during his presidential campaign, to propose a $20 billion rescue plan and threaten the Brazilian leader with economic sanctions.

The campaign to criminalize ecocide is now moving from the fringe of advocacy into global diplomacy, pushed by a growing recognition among advocates and many political leaders that climate change and environmental causes are tied inherently to human rights and social justice.

The effort remains a long shot and is at least years from fruition, international and environmental law experts say. Advocates will have to navigate political tensions over whether national governments or the international community have ultimate control over natural resources. And they’ll likely face opposition from countries with high carbon emissions and deep ties to industrial development.

The environmentalists must also figure out how criminal law would address climate change, which has been driven by practices like burning coal and gasoline that are not only legal, but central to the global TaboolaSponsored StoriesBOMBAS8 Things That Make Bombas the Best Socks in the History of FeetMICROSOFTBring your desktop to life with beautiful wallpapers

Image: The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns off the coast of Louisiana on April 21, 2010.Gerald Herbert / AP file

The campaign to make ecocide a crime, however, is about more than law. Jojo Mehta, who launched the Stop Ecocide campaign in 2017 with Polly Higgins, a Scottish lawyer who died in 2019, describes it as a moral and practical issue as well.

“We use criminal law to draw moral lines,” Mehta said. “We say something’s not accepted, your murder is not acceptable. And so, simply putting mass damage and destruction of nature below that red line actually makes a huge difference, and it will make a difference to the people that are financing what is going on.”

Scott W. Badenoch Jr., an American environmental lawyer who favors the criminalization of ecocide, used the term to describe the state, and fate, of the Earth.

“Ecocide is now endemic all over the planet,” he said. “The structures of ecology that have held up living organisms on Earth, since time immemorial, are collapsing everywhere.” He added, “Ecocide is now, frankly, the process that we are living in on Earth.”The fifth crime

The concept of ecocide was born of tragedy. Over a period of 10 years, the United States government sprayed 19 million gallons of powerful herbicides, including Agent Orange, across the countryside in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to expose enemy sanctuaries during the Vietnam War.

The dioxin-laced chemicals defoliated verdant jungle and caused cancers, neurological disease and birth defects in people living nearby. While the number of victims is disputed, Vietnamese groups claim there are more than 3 million. In 1970, Yale biologist Arthur Galston invoked the destruction to call on the world to outlaw what he called “ecocide.”

Image: Chu Thanh Nhan, 12, in an empty classroom at a rehabilitation center in Danang, Vietnam, in 2012.
Chu Thanh Nhan, 12, in an empty classroom at a rehabilitation center in Danang, Vietnam, in 2012. The children at the rehabilitation center were born with physical and mental disabilities that the center says were caused by their parents’ exposure to Agent Orange.Maika Elan / AP file

More than 20 years later, the global community came together to form the International Criminal Court, which was formally established in 2002 under a treaty called the Rome Statute to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes when its member countries, which currently number 123, fail to do so themselves.

Early drafts of the Rome Statute included the crime of environmental destruction, but it was removed after opposition from the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, based on various concerns, including that it wasn’t precisely defined. Instead, it was relegated to a wartime offense that has never been enforced.

As a result, international criminal law includes few guardrails to prevent peacetime environmental destruction.

“There’s a big gap and something needs to fill it,” said Badenoch, a visiting attorney at the Environmental Law Institute.

“We currently cannot hold big corporations or big governments accountable for ecocide,” Badenoch added. “So, what do you do? We name and shame — that’s all we’ve got.”

Decades of oil extraction in Nigeria by subsidiaries of Royal Dutch Shell, for example, have contaminated the air, ground and water in parts of the country with benzene and other toxic pollutants, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Civil lawsuits have taken years to wind through European courts, and no laws were strong enough to prevent the damage from happening, though Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary was recently ordered by a Dutch court to compensate Nigerian farmers.

Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman, pointed to a corporate report that says many of the spills have come as a result of sabotage and theft, and that the company has been working with stakeholders to clean up the pollution identified by the U.N. Environment Program.

Image: Children play on an abandoned oil flow station near smoke from a burning oil pipe in Kegbara-Dere, Nigeria, in 2007.
Children play on an abandoned oil flow station near smoke from a burning oil pipe in Kegbara-Dere, Nigeria, in 2007.George Osodi / AP file

The International Criminal Court’s supranational authority would make an ecocide crime particularly powerful, said Kate Mackintosh, executive director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at the University of California Los Angeles.

An ecocide crime would require International Criminal Court members to enact their own national ecocide laws, and failure to enforce those laws would enable the international court to step in. While political leaders and warlords have been the usual targets of the court, an ecocide crime could place business executives on notice, too.

“That could make a difference in corporate boardroom conversations,” Mackintosh said. Even the threat of being labeled an international criminal, she said, might deter destructive corporate behavior. “I mean, for PR, it doesn’t look good, does it?”

Mackintosh said making ecocide a crime could help in weak states, where corporate polluters are sometimes more powerful than national governments. “The likelihood of any criminal prosecution taking place in that state is pretty low,” she said. “But with an international crime, that’s actually not a bar.”

China, the United States, India and Russia — four of the world’s top polluters — are not members of the International Criminal Court, but if a corporation based in one of those countries were to operate within a member state, as many of them do, their executives could fall under the court’s jurisdiction.

The push to criminalize ecocide remained on the periphery until December 2019, when Vanuatu and the Maldives, two island nations threatened by rising seas and climate change-driven extreme weather, recommended that the court consider amending its statute to “criminalize acts that amount to ecocide.”

“Our legacy and our future are at stake,” Vanuatu’s ambassador to the European Union, John Licht, told the court, stressing a “common bond” that united all the world’s people. “Our lives are intertwined by the environment we live in.”

Image: Children play on Eton Beach in Efate, Vanuatu, in 2019.
Children play on Eton Beach in Efate, Vanuatu, in 2019. Satellite data show sea levels have risen about 6 millimeters per year in Vanuatu since 1993, a rate nearly twice the global average.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Willy Missack, who has served as part of Vanuatu’s delegation to the United Nations climate negotiations, said diplomats from other countries expressed shock when “little tiny Vanuatu” — a remote archipelago of more than 80 islands in the South Pacific — said it wanted to take on global powers and the fossil fuel industry through the courts. But the fact that corporations can continue to profit from carbon emissions that are threatening his country’s future, Missack said, makes the legal case clear.

“It is not right,” he said, “and this is where justice comes in.”Defining ecocide

After Vanuatu asked the International Criminal Court to consider criminalizing ecocide, Mehta’s Stop Ecocide Foundation independently convened a panel of international legal experts, including Mackintosh of UCLA, to draft a clear definition of ecocide. They plan to publish their definition in June, at which point they hope at least one of the court’s member nations will formally propose that the court adopt ecocide as the fifth international crime against peace. Mehta has said the definition would likely require “willful disregard” of environmental destruction related to practices like widespread logging, drilling, mining and deep-sea trawling.


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Richard J. Rogers, a British expert in international criminal law who is a partner at Global Diligence and a member of the drafting panel, said it may be relatively straightforward to criminalize certain acts, like destruction of a forest or waterway.

But climate change poses a greater challenge: Not only is it difficult to connect polluters to specific harms, he said, but there’s also nothing illegal about extracting or burning fossil fuels.

“The situation we’re dealing with is that the carbon system, which has fueled our economies since the Industrial Revolution, has not only been lawful, but it’s been encouraged,” Rogers said.

Another point that the drafters will have to grapple with is whether the crime of ecocide should require prosecutors to prove that humans have been harmed. Mackintosh said that while this “human harm” threshold could prove appealing politically — the court’s existing crimes all largely involve harm to humans — focusing ecocide only on the environment could make it easier for prosecutors to prove, especially when it comes to harms related to climate change, which are often incremental and indirect.

Image: Oil flows into a tailings pond at a tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada in 2014.
Oil flows into a tailings pond at a tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada, in 2014.Todd Korol / Reuters file

If a nation agrees to introduce the ecocide proposal to the International Criminal Court for consideration, that is when even harder work will begin. Ratification is a multistep process that would require support from either two-thirds or seven-eighths of the court’s members, depending on the type of amendment introduced. (Vanuatu still supports the campaign, but Covid-19 and the country’s “limited resources for international diplomacy” have put its ecocide advocacy on hold, said Dreli Solomon, a spokesman for Vanuatu’s embassy in Brussels.)

While no country has committed to formally proposing that the court adopt ecocide, the campaign is gaining traction, fueled by the youth-led climate movement and radical new groups like Extinction Rebellion.

In December, Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès asked International Criminal Court member states to examine the possibility of adopting ecocide as a crime. A member of Belgium’s Parliament has also proposed a bill to criminalize ecocide. And French lawmakers are working on legislation to make ecocide an offense punishable by fines and prison, though Stop Ecocide criticized the bill as “weak.”

At least 10 countries have national ecocide laws already, including Vietnam, which enacted the law in 1990.

Separately, French lawyers in January filed a request on behalf of Amazonian indigenous groups asking the International Criminal Court to investigate Bolsonaro of Brazil for crimes against humanity.

The appeal alleges that deforestation encouraged by Bolsonaro’s government and other policies have forced indigenous people from their homes and even led to murders in the region.

While the request relies on citations of crimes the court already addresses, the lawyers who submitted it have said the case is also an example of ecocide.

The Brazilian Embassy in Washington said in a statement that “the Bolsonaro administration is taking concrete action to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples and ensure the future of the Amazon.”

The embassy said that over 70 percent of the eligible Indigenous population has received initial Covid-19 vaccinations and that deforestation rates in the Amazon were 21 percent lower from August to January , compared to the same period a year earlier.

Badenoch said that while the hurdles to adopting a new international crime are high, they are not insurmountable.

“These things take a long time and they are complex,” he said. “But they can be done.”Into the mainstream

While the campaign for an ecocide law could take years — if it is successful at all — advocates say the effort could bear fruit much sooner: The ecocide campaign has thrust the concept into public discussion.

Mehta doesn’t expect the campaign to catch fire in the United States, but after four years of President Donald Trump, she’s heartened by the arrival of John Kerry, Biden’s special climate envoy. “We don’t expect the U.S. to join the ICC any time soon, but that said, the conversation around ecocide itself, we don’t see any reason why it can’t start happening in the U.S.,” she said.

The State Department released a statement saying that the U.S. “regularly engages with other countries” on “the importance of preventing environmental destruction during armed conflict,” but added, “We do not comment on the details of our communications with foreign governments.”

Image: Billows of smoke rise over a deforested plot of the Amazon in Porto Velho, Brazil, on Aug. 24, 2019.
Billows of smoke rise over a deforested plot of the Amazon in Porto Velho, Brazil, on Aug. 24, 2019.Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters file

Mehta’s campaign is also part of a wider effort by activists who have been looking to the courts to force more aggressive action on climate change.

As of July 1, 2020, at least 1,550 climate change cases have been filed in 38 countries, according to a U.N. report.

In 2015, a Dutch court ruled in the Urgenda Climate Case that the government had acted negligently by failing to take aggressive enough action to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands upheld the ruling in a landmark decision in 2019 and ordered the government to hit specific emissions reductions targets, sparking a series of similar lawsuits in other countries.

In one of those lawsuits, a Paris administrative court held the French government responsible for failing to meet its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The ruling relied, in part, on France’s nonbinding commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, taking what had been the soft pledge of politics and turning it into a legally binding commitment.

Mehta has framed an ecocide law as a counterweight to the failings of the Paris Agreement, saying in a recent column she co-wrote in The Guardian that it offers “a way to correct the shortcomings” of the global climate pact. “Whereas Paris lacks sufficient ambition, transparency and accountability, the criminalization of ecocide would be an enforceable deterrent.”

Alex Whiting, a professor at Harvard Law School and former coordinator of prosecutions at the International Criminal Court, said that making ecocide a crime before the court would have tremendous impact, even if only a few cases were actually prosecuted.

“When a crime becomes an international crime, it has a ripple effect,” he said. “The environment is the issue of our time. Being able to do something about that seems important.”

In Vanuatu, though, there is a sense that the pace of climate change is beginning to outrun the country’s ability to adapt. Cyclones that have devastated the islands are expected to intensify as the globe continues to warm.

Image: Helena Iesul searches for vegetables to collect from her family garden in Tanna, Vanuatu, in 2019. Iesul says an extended dry season has affected her plants.
Helena Iesul searches for vegetables to collect from her family garden in Tanna, Vanuatu, in 2019. Iesul says an extended dry season has affected her plants.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

Missack, the Vanuatu diplomat, said the effects of climate change run much deeper than damage from storms. Most of the country’s residents depend on the crops they grow and the fish they catch, so their lives are intertwined with the environment around them.

Recently, the harvest of yam, a key crop that is already stressed by changes in the climate, was disrupted, throwing it out of alignment with the seasonal and celestial markers and accompanying rituals that normally tell farmers when to reap.

“One day we will talk about the stars, and this is how the ritual goes. But it will never be the same spirit, the same soul of the ritual,” Missack said. “And that loss, none of the money in this world can pay for it.”

The human right that benefits nature

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A lawsuit filed in the name of a child who wanted to clean up local pollution had unexpectedly far-reaching impacts in Costa Rica (Credit: Getty Images)

By Katarina Zimmer16th March 2021More than 100 constitutions across the world have adopted a human right to a healthy environment, which is proving to be a powerful way to protect the natural world.T

The history behind one of Costa Rica’s most important environmental commitments reads something like a legal fairytale. It started nearly 30 years ago, with a young boy who wanted to stop the pollution in his neighborhood and ended with a constitutional reform. The impacts of the boy’s efforts are still causing ripples to the present day.

It began in 1992, by a stream weaving through a small town near the capital, San José. Without a proper waste management system, locals would throw their garbage into the stream, causing waste to pile up at its banks. Frustrated about the situation, then 10-year-old Carlos Roberto Mejía Chacón, with help from his family, filed an appeal with Costa Rica’s constitutional chamber against the local municipality. Allowing the river to be used as a garbage dump, he argued, violated the human right to life, which requires adequate living conditions and protected, clean waterways.

The chamber sided with Chacón a year later and ordered the municipality to clear up the garbage and start managing residents’ waste properly. But it also came to a much deeper recognition. A clean and healthy environment is a very basis of human life, as are balanced ecosystems, biodiversity, and other elements of nature on which people depend, the judges reasoned. Just like food, work, housing and education, an all-round healthy environment should be considered a human right.

In a worsening global environmental crisis, some legal scholars have argued that the right to a healthy environment acts as a crucial legal pathway to protect the natural world

This remarkable conclusion not only set a new legal standard for courts around the country, but also spurred the decision to carve the human right to a healthy environment into Costa Rica’s legal DNA during a constitutional reform in 1994, recalls lawyer Patricia Madrigal Cordero, who was involved in the legislative process at the time. Since then, the constitutional right has helped guide many of Costa Rica’s widely praised – although far from perfect – environmental policies and reverberated through the country’s landscape and culture. “I think Costa Rica would be different if we didn’t establish that relationship between human rights and the environment,” Cordero says. The Global South has led the way in adopting the human right to a healthy environment (Credit: Katarina Zimmer/BBC)

The Global South has led the way in adopting the human right to a healthy environment (Credit: Katarina Zimmer/BBC)

The human right to a healthy environment – encompassing clean and balanced ecosystems, rich biodiversity and a stable climate – recognises that nature is a keystone of a dignified human existence, in line with a wealth of scientific evidence linking human welfare and the natural worldPeople depend on thriving ecosystems that clean water and airyield seafood and pollinators, and soak up greenhouse gases. Recognising this link legally can greatly strengthen human rights.

But equally important, Cordero notes, is that the right provides a powerful basis to protect nature itself. In a worsening global environmental crisis, some legal scholars have argued that the right to a healthy environment acts as a crucial legal pathway to protecting the natural world, both by encouraging governments to pass stronger environmental laws and allowing courts to hold violators accountable. Especially when installed into constitutions, such rights are taken seriously by many judicial systems and become hard to undo, creating an enduring force counteracting the interests against protecting nature.  

The right has created a powerful bulwark against a rising tide of environmental destruction in many countries, such as Costa Rica, Colombia and South Africa

But although there is clear scientific consensus on the benefits of nature to people, the evolution of nature as a human right has been remarkably patchy around the world. Today, many Latin American countries forging ahead while Europe and North America lag somewhat behind.

Since the right’s first mention in the Stockholm Declaration in 1972 – a result of the first major environmental conference – some 110 countries have constitutionally recognised it. While its impact varies across the globe, it has created a powerful bulwark against a rising tide of environmental destruction in many countries, such as Costa Rica, Colombia and South Africa, as more nations look set to follow suit soon.

Of course, recognising the right “is not a magic wand we can use to solve all of our challenges”, says environmental lawyer David Boyd, who is appointed as a special rapporteur on human rights and the environment at the United Nations. “It’s a catalyst for better actions.”

Indeed, some of Boyd’s research has found that countries with the right to a healthy environment – or other environmental mandates – in their constitutions tend to have stronger environmental policies in general. They’re also more likely to score better on metrics of sustainable development, according to studies by economist Chris Jeffords of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. That said, Jeffords cautions that it’s tricky to parse out cause and effect – are the rights themselves are leading to these benefits, or are environmentally progressive countries simply more likely to adopt such rights?A large number of countries in Latin America have adopted the right, whereas countries in Europe and North America have been slower (Credit: Getty Images)

A large number of countries in Latin America have adopted the right, whereas countries in Europe and North America have been slower (Credit: Getty Images)

In Costa Rica, the answer seems to be a bit of both. Although a programme of environmental policies and legislation began long before 1994 in the country, environmental protections have grown more robust since the constitutional right was formally introduced, says Cordero, who served as vice minister of Costa Rica’s environment and energy ministry from 2014 to 2018. In addition to sourcing 98% of its energy from renewable sources, Costa Rica has protected a quarter of its land as national parks or reserves and reforested vast swaths of once-degraded land.

Over the years, the country’s constitutional chamber has heard hundreds of cases involving the right, often finding violations, Cordero says. It has ruled that killing endangered green sea turtles is unconstitutional, as well as felling the mountain almond tree, which is used by the critically endangered great green macaw – effectively outlawing both practices. The country’s moratoria on oil exploration and open-pit mining also trace back to lawsuits over the right to a healthy environment, Cordero adds. 

A trump card in courts

Similar cases have played out across many other Latin American countries which have embraced the right, such as Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador, says César Rodríguez-Garavito, an international human rights and environmental law expert at New York University.

If you can show that a fundamental right is at stake, you can basically fast-track the case in courts – César Rodríguez-Garavito

There, Rodríguez-Garavito says that such laws have also shaped the way journalists frame environmental issues – as something people have a right to, rather than just one policy consideration – and have empowered social justice movements to mobilise the public, which in itself can deter potential violators. In courts, human rights act like trump cards, generating more powerful legal arguments over other considerations, like economic freedom. And in some jurisdictions, such as Colombia, “if you can show that a fundamental right is at stake, you can basically fast-track the case in courts. So that’s made for much speedier decisions,” he adds.Some lawyers argue that the human right to a healthy environment has made it easier to protect ecosystems such as the Amazon Rainforest (Credit: Getty Images)

Some lawyers argue that the human right to a healthy environment has made it easier to protect ecosystems such as the Amazon Rainforest (Credit: Getty Images)

At the very least, the right to a healthy environment has helped slow down processes of habitat destruction, Rodríguez-Garavito argues – particularly during the 2000s’ commodity boom, which pushed the price of metals to unprecedented heights, producing a near-unsurmountable pressure to open up rainforests and other delicate ecosystems to mining.

“Had there not been strong constitutional protection – both environmental rights and indigenous people’s rights – I’m ready to bet that those ecosystems would have been basically wiped out,” says Rodríguez-Garavito. Of course, this doesn’t mean that nature is sufficiently protected in South America – deforestation continues and the region remains the deadliest for environmental activists. Like with other human rights, “there’s an implementation gap”, he notes.

That gap also exists in South Africa, where the right is nestled within its famously progressive 1996 constitution. But the country remains starkly unequal, has some of the world’s most polluted air and many communities are suffering from respiratory diseases. Unless people go to court, “you’re not going to see that right being met”, says Pooven Moodley, a human rights lawyer at Natural Justice, a non-profit working with local communities across Africa to provide legal support on environmental justice issues. While so far not many communities have gone to court over that right, it’s starting to happen more and more, he says. “It’s absolutely key, because it’s something we can refer to, something we can [use to] challenge other laws or practices – whether it’s by governments or private sectors.”South Africa has adopted the right, yet there remains an "implementation gap", with persistent environmental issues such as pollution (Credit: Alamy)

South Africa has adopted the right, yet there remains an “implementation gap”, with persistent environmental issues such as pollution (Credit: Alamy)

In the Pacific island of Fiji, which adopted the right in 2013, the law has yet to be used in courts, perhaps because people – particularly politically marginalised groups – are still unaware of their rights or can’t afford the expensive legal process, says Kiji Vukikumoala, a lawyer who coordinates Fiji’s Environmental Law Association. But her organisation has seen a recent surge of interest from communities looking to take such matters to court, she says. “As the impacts increase… I think it will result in a lot more of our citizens thinking deeply about challenging a lot of these issues and the lack of implementation or enforcement by government.”

Refining the right

So far, the right has probably had the most impact in Latin America and other countries of the Global South, including India and the Philippines, where courts have tended to be more proactive than governments in redressing environmental damage, Rodríguez-Garavito says.

Europe, on the other hand, has been slower off the mark. In the handful of European countries that have embraced the concept, it seems to be less impactful in courts, perhaps because their environmental policies are generally stronger, says Laurence Gay, a human rights law expert of the French National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille University.

In Slovenia, for instance – a country with abundant greenery and extensive recycling programs – the right may have influenced some of the country’s environmental policies. But its main effect has been shaping the country’s mentality towards nature, as evidenced by its education system, which includes extensive curricula on sustainability, says ambassador Sabina Stadler Repnik, permanent representative to the UN in Geneva. “The educational part of this right, I think, is more important [and where] we can achieve more in the longer term than just going to courts and litigating for years and years.”

And in some European countries when such rights were first adopted, many judges initially debated whether constitutional environmental rights were mere political manifestos, Gay says. But increasingly, “judges in more and more countries tend to reject such positions and to recognise the binding effects [of the right]”.In Slovenia, a key outcome of adopting the right has been renewing the country's commitment to sustainability (Credit: Getty Images)

In Slovenia, a key outcome of adopting the right has been renewing the country’s commitment to sustainability (Credit: Getty Images)

For instance, in a high-profile climate lawsuit in Norway, environmental groups argued that allowing oil drilling in the Arctic was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that the state did in fact have an obligation to protect citizens from environmental harm. However, the court ruled that drilling permits still didn’t infringe on the right, in part because the state shouldn’t be responsible for emissions from oil it exports. 

France, however, has taken a step further. The “duty of vigilance” law, introduced in 2017, holds companies responsible for preventing human rights or environment violations throughout their whole supply chains, explains Sebastién Mabile, an environmental lawyer with the Paris-based legal services firm Seattle Avocats.

Evidently, the right to a healthy environment requires a few extra ingredients to work well, not least the will to enforce it and judicial systems that are free of political influence. Human rights are most effective when they’re coupled with other constitutional rights and laws that make it easier for people to go to court and get information on their rights, Jeffords adds.

And environmental protection has to go hand in hand with other human rights, Moodley adds, pointing towards governments that have evicted indigenous communities out of protected areas in the name of conservation. Yet when used properly, such as in Latin America, constitutional rights can protect human rights as well as nature – and without hampering economic development; Costa Rica is considered an upper-middle-income country, relying on electronics, software, and ecotourism as its major exports.

More countries are considering adopting the right to a healthy environment soon, either in their constitutions or general legislation, including Algeria, The Gambia, Chile, Canada and Scotland. But some of the world’s richest – like the UK, United States, China and Japan – have yet to officially consider it. Meanwhile, Boyd still advocates for recognition at the UN level, which could compel more countries to recognise and strengthen it and create ways of holding countries accountable on the international stage.

It is often said that human rights have their roots in wrongs. The UN Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 emerged out of the ashes of World War Two. Back then, its authors couldn’t foresee a global environmental crisis, nor a wealth of scientific research demonstrating nature’s importance to human wellbeing. But such documents are arguably meant to evolve forwards and adapt to new threats to the people they govern. “If we continue down the path we’re on, then we’re in deep trouble from a human rights perspective,” Boyd says. “If we don’t step up and actually take the actions that we know are necessary and feasible to protect and restore this beautiful planet of ours.”

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Planetary ‘safety net’ could halt wildlife loss and slow climate breakdown

Researchers have drawn up a blueprint of areas that need additional conservation to stem biodiversity and climate crises

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World leaders are preparing to join a key summit on biodiversity being hosted in New York amid mounting evidence that governments are failing to halt the unprecedented loss of species around the world.

Earlier this month, a UN report revealed that the international community had failed to fully achieve any of the 20 biodiversity targets agreed in 2010.

But scientists at the environmental research organisation Resolve have drawn up a blueprint for a planetary “safety net” of protected areas they say could help halt catastrophic biodiversity loss.

Humans’ construction ‘footprint’ on ocean quantified for first time

Humans' construction 'footprint' on ocean quantified for first time
Aquaculture farms in the coast of China’s northeast province of Liaonin. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

In a world-first, the extent of human development in oceans has been mapped. An area totalling approximately 30,000 square kilometres—the equivalent of 0.008 percent of the ocean—has been modified by human construction, a study led by Dr. Ana Bugnot from the University of Sydney School of Life and Environmental Sciences and the Sydney Institute of Marine Science has found.

The extent of  modified by human construction is, proportion-wise, comparable to the extent of urbanised land, and greater than the global area of some natural marine habitats, such as  and .

When calculated as the area modified inclusive of flow-on effects to surrounding areas, for example, due to changes in  and pollution, the footprint is actually two million square kilometres, or over 0.5 percent of the ocean.

The oceanic modification includes areas affected by tunnels and bridges; infrastructure for energy extraction (for example, oil and gas rigs, ); shipping (ports and marinas); aquaculture infrastructure; and artificial reefs.

Dr. Bugnot said that ocean development is nothing new, yet, in recent times, it has rapidly changed. “It has been ongoing since before 2000 BC,” she said. “Then, it supported  through the construction of commercial ports and protected low-lying coasts with the creation of structures similar to breakwaters.

“Since the mid-20th century, however, ocean development has ramped up, and produced both positive and negative results.

“For example, while artificial reefs have been used as ‘sacrificial habitat’ to drive tourism and deter fishing, this infrastructure can also impact sensitive natural habitats like seagrasses, mudflats and saltmarshes, consequently affecting water quality.

“Marine development mostly occurs in —the most biodiverse and biologically productive ocean environments.”

Humans' construction 'footprint' on ocean quantified for first time
A map showing the physical footprint of marine construction globally, in square kilometres. Credit: Bugnot et al., ‘Current and projected global extent of marine built structures’, Nature Sustainability.

Future expansion ‘alarming’

Dr. Bugnot, joined by co-researchers from multiple local and international universities, also projected the rate of future ocean footprint expansion.

“The numbers are alarming,” Dr. Bugnot said. “For example, infrastructure for power and aquaculture, including cables and tunnels, is projected to increase by 50 to 70 percent by 2028.

“Yet this is an underestimate: there is a dearth of information on ocean development, due to poor regulation of this in many parts of the world.

“There is an urgent need for improved management of marine environments. We hope our study spurs national and international initiatives, such as the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, to greater action.”

The researchers attributed the projected expansion on people’s increasing need for defences against coastal erosion and inundation due to sea level rise and climate change, as well as their transportation, energy extraction, and recreation needs.

Journal Nature Sustainability published their research. It was undertaken in 2018, when Dr Bugnot was employed by UNSW.

Michael Moore warns that Donald Trump is on course to repeat 2016 win

Film-maker says enthusiasm for president in swing states is ‘off the charts’ and urges everyone to commit to getting 100 people to vote

Michael Moore speaks during a rally by Senator Bernie Sanders in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in February.
 Michael Moore speaks during a rally by Senator Bernie Sanders in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in February. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The documentary film-maker Michael Moore has warned that Donald Trump appears to have such momentum in some battleground states that liberals risk a repeat of 2016 when many wrote off Trump only to see him grab the White House.

“Sorry to have to provide the reality check again,” he said.

Moore, one of few political observers to predict Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, said that “enthusiasm for Trump is off the charts” in key areas compared with the Democratic party nominee, Joe Biden.

“Are you ready for a Trump victory? Are you mentally prepared to be outsmarted by Trump again? Do you find comfort in your certainty that there is no way Trump can win? Are you content with the trust you’ve placed in the DNC [Democratic National Committee] to pull this off?” Moore posted on Facebook late on Friday.

The president tweeted about Moore on Sunday morning.

Moore identified opinion polling in battleground states such as Minnesota and Michigan to make a case that the sitting president is running alongside or ahead of his rival.

“The Biden campaign just announced he’ll be visiting a number of states – but not Michigan. Sound familiar?” Moore wrote, presumably indicating Hillary Clinton’s 2016 race when she made the error of avoiding some states that then swung to Trump.

“I’m warning you almost 10 weeks in advance. The enthusiasm level for the 60 million in Trump’s base is OFF THE CHARTS! For Joe, not so much,” he later added.

He continued to voters: “Don’t leave it to the Democrats to get rid of Trump. YOU have to get rid of Trump. WE have to wake up every day for the next 67 days and make sure each of us are going to get a hundred people out to vote. ACT NOW!”

Moore cited CNN polling of registered voters this month to assert that “Biden and Trump were in a virtual tie”, including a poll that showed the pair tied at 47% in Minnesota. Moore said that Trump “has closed the gap to 4 points” in Michigan.

national CNN poll this month showed that Biden’s lead over Trump has narrowed nationally, 50% to 46%, while a survey from the Republican-leaning Trafalgar Group found Biden and Trump statistically tied at 47% in Minnesota, and Trump narrowly leading Biden in Michigan. The margin of error for the poll, which surveyed 1,048 people, is 2.98%.

Moore, a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders’s leftwing candidacy, warned in October 2016 that “Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘f*** you’ ever recorded in human history – and it will feel good,” even as Clinton appeared to be sailing to victory.

“Whether Trump means it or not is kind of irrelevant because he’s saying the things to people who are hurting, and that’s why every beaten-down, nameless, forgotten working stiff who used to be part of what was called the middle class loves Trump,” Moore warned in 2016.

Moore’s latest warnings come as Trump said at a campaign event in New Hampshire on Friday night that he supported seeing the first female president of the United States, but recommended his daughter over the Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris.

“They’re all saying ‘we want Ivanka,’” Trump told his supporters. “I don’t blame them.”

Change, Pope Francis Sounds an Urgent Alarm

The encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ motivated many people to take action on global warming, but governments, the pope said, have lagged far behind.

Pope Francis delivers his blessing from the window overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during the Sunday Angelus prayer earlier this month. Credit: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

Pope Francis delivers his blessing from the window overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican during the Sunday Angelus prayer earlier this month. Credit: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

 When Pope Francis issued his landmark teaching document on climate change in 2015, his words went straight to the heart of Susan Varlamoff.

Varlamoff, 70, a biologist, read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 1960s and speaks proudly of a Catholic faith that embraces science and calls on church members to take care of the earth. Her sister, she said, died from cancer as a child, and she wondered whether her father’s liberal use of pesticides in their suburban yard might have been the cause.

She asked Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who was then the leader of 1.2 million Catholics in Atlanta and across much of Georgia, whether she could write a review for the archdiocese of the Pope’s  “Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home,” the first encyclical to be dedicated to the environment.

Instead, he asked for an action plan.

So with her colleagues at the University of Georgia, Varlamoff wrote and illustrated a 52-page treatise on the science of climate change that offered Georgians motivated by their faith a road map for dealing with a warming earth.

The plan strengthened climate education at Catholic schools across much of the state and prompted a series of local energy audits and efficiency improvements at churches and schools. It also provided a template for climate action among Catholics nationwide.

“Slowly, we are starting to make our way and to get this information out,” said Varlamoff, who has since retired. “We are exchanging best practices. There are so many Catholic scientists who desperately want to work for caring for creation. We are just moving forward with people who believe as we do.”

Susan Varlamoff wrote an action plan based on Pope Francis's ecology encyclical for the Atlanta Archdiocese. Credit: Susan Varlamoff

Susan Varlamoff wrote an action plan based on Pope Francis’s ecology encyclical for the Atlanta Archdiocese. Credit: Susan Varlamoff

Laudato Si’ represented a seminal integration of the environment and humanity (the title is from the first words of the encyclical, “Praise be to you my Lord”). But earlier this year, Francis criticized world governments for their “very weak” response to the climate crisis. In June, he issued guidance for carrying out his climate encyclical that included calling on Catholics to divest themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies.

With this new sense of urgency, the Vatican launched a year-long program of Laudato Si’ activities and put in place a new, seven-year call to action.

The encyclical broadly accepts the scientific consensus that climate change is principally a man-made phenomenon. Without prompt global action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and slow the planet’s warming, it says, there will be profound environmental, social, political and economic consequences.  The pope clearly identifies the use of fossil fuels as a cause of climate change.

Yale University scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, described the pope’s commitment on climate as “unprecedented,” and said it represents a “structural change” in how the world is confronting climate change and other environmental issues, such as pollution.

Science and policy have led the response to environmental concerns for decades, she said, but the pope has interjected a moral force linking people with their environment.

“It’s not just social justice issues, and not just environmental issues,” Tucker said. “It’s the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor, all coming together in various movements. The encyclical names this ‘integral ecology’.”

The global coronavirus pandemic, she added, “is making the linkages even more clear. You cannot have healthy people on a sick planet.”

A Message for the Planet

To the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics—including about 70 million in the United States—a papal encyclical is a pastoral letter that carries a special gravitas. But with Laudato Si’,  the pope intended it to reach everyone on the planet.

“The encyclical stands on millennia of Catholic teachings, starting with the Genesis story,” said Anna Wagner, an engagement director with the five-year-old Global Catholic Climate Movement, which works with the Vatican on climate matters. “It takes ancient lessons of our faith and expresses them in a new way,” she said.

Upon the encyclical’s release in June, 2015, the pope took to Twitter to declare, bluntly: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

At the time, scientists were warning that global warming, rising seas, and supercharged weather were no longer a distant threat. Five years later, scientists have documented how climate change is intensifying droughts, wildfires and hurricanes, and have said that carbon emissions need to drop 45 percent by 2030 if the world is to have a chance at fending off the worst effects of climate change.

In Laudato Si’, Francis blended the latest science on climate and the loss of biological diversity with a heavy dose of economics, Catholic teaching and a call to treat all humans with dignity and respect.

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications,” he wrote, especially for the poor and in developing nations.

Rich countries are hurting poor countries, Francis wrote, calling for an economic system with “more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations.”

The encyclical was seen in some camps as an attack on capitalism, and it made some Catholic Republican leaders squirm, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who in 2015 observed that the pope “is not a scientist.”

The conservative Heartland Institute, which has long sought to undercut climate science, accused Francis of being misled by what a spokesman described as “false prophets,” or the “agenda-driven bureaucrats at the United Nations.”

Five years later, climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben, who has taught Sunday school in Methodist churches and has been open about his own Christian faith, described the encyclical as among the most important documents of recent decades.

“It has its roots in the climate crisis, but it understands it in a much larger sense,” McKibben said. “And it presages what has happened over the last four of five years as people realize that the environmental movement needs to be the environmental justice movement.”

It’s important, as well, McKibben said, because of the Pope’s reach as a global faith leader and “arguably the most recognizable figure in the world.”

The World’s Response Has Been “a Source of Grave Concern”

Laudato Si’ created a global buzz before and after it was published. But its impact has been mixed inside the sprawling church, a massive global institution known to move slowly.

The National Catholic Reporter, a Kansas City-based independent Catholic news outlet with dedicated climate coverage, found examples around the world in which individual Catholics, parishes and institutions had responded to Laudato Si’.

Bishops in the Philippines have been fighting coal-fired power plants. American Catholic nuns and their partners in Ghana launched a plastic recycling program to reduce waste and increase employment. The U.S. Conference of Bishops, citing Laudato Si’, has opposed the Trump administration’s rollback or repeals of key environmental regulations.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement is another example. Launched as Laudato Si’ was released, it has grown to encompass 900 Catholic organizations in dozens of countries. The organization has spearheaded some of Catholicism’s  most visible climate actions, from faith-based youth climate strikes to persuading a growing number of Catholic institutions to pull their investments in fossil fuel companies.

But the National Catholic Reporter also concluded that the pope’s message had not been as widely received as Francis had hoped.

“Sadly, the urgency of this ecological conversion seems not to have been grasped by international politics, where the response to the problems raised by global issues such as climate change remains very weak and a source of grave concern,” the pope told 180 diplomats meeting at the Vatican in January. He also praised the rising voices of young people demanding urgent action on climate change.

This summer, the Vatican announced the “Laudato Si’ Action Platform.” It asks Catholics and Catholic institutions to achieve sustainability within seven years.

The Vatican itself continues to gather advice from high-level scientists and other experts in working groups, with both climate and Covid-19 in mind.

“The Vatican is pulling expertise from all over the world to chart a course for a post-Covid world,” Tucker said. “This is a huge commitment.”

The Importance of Catholic Divestment

Experts will argue over whether divestment campaigns actually cripple the targeted industries. But to their supporters, the campaigns hurt companies by diminishing their reputations and their access to capital, the lifeblood of any corporation.

In McKibben’s mind, the Vatican’s full support for divestment of fossil fuel companies is “a big deal, since the Church is a serious financial force.”

Various Catholic institutions have been divesting from fossil fuel companies for several years, including the University of Dayton and Georgetown University, with the pace picking up since Laudato Si’, though many still have not divested, he said.

The author of more than 15 books, including The End of Nature, published in 1989 as an early warning about global warming, McKibben is also co-founder of the environmental group, which has run its own divestment campaign since 2012.

The environmental group counts more than 1,200 institutions and local governments and thousands of individuals representing over $14 trillion as having pledged to divest their assets from fossil fuels, including the Episcopal church, the Church of England, and the World Council of Churches.

S&P Global, a financial information and analysis company, has said the movement is gaining traction, and reported a new sense of clean-energy optimism in the market.

And, the  multinational oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell in its 2019 annual report described the divestment campaigns as a significant enough risk that it felt it needed to warn investors.

Divestment campaigns “could have a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access capital markets,” the company disclosed. Shell also recently slashed the value of its assets by up to $22 billion amid crashing oil prices, the global pandemic and pressure to move away from fossil fuels.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement called the new divestment effort  the first-ever endorsement of a fossil fuel divestment campaign to come from the full Vatican and said it followed the largest-ever announcement of divestment by faith institutions. In May 2020, 42 institutions in 14 countries announced their commitment to drop fossil fuels.

“The more that banks and fossil fuel companies and insurance companies see investment in fossil fuels is a losing strategy, the more they are going to distance themselves from fossil fuel industry projects and see them as a losing strategy in terms of finances and risk,” Wagner said.

Engaging Conservative Catholics

The pope’s renewed climate push this year comes as Americans face a presidential election pitting two candidates with widely divergent views on climate change. For nearly four years, President Donald Trump has taken the country in the opposite direction from the Vatican, working to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, a global action to fight climate change. Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, has embraced the encyclical, as well as a $2 trillion clean economy jobs program and timetable to achieve net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.

For some Catholics, Trump’s fossil-fuel agenda has provided motivation to act on their own, said Dan Misleh, executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that includes 19 U.S. Catholic partner institutions and works to incorporate the encyclical’s message in education and worship.  “People were saying nothing is going to happen on the national level, so we need to act at the local and state level,” he said.

The encyclical has inspired actions across the country, he said. His organization has encouraged the creation of dozens of so-called Creation Care Teams to lead community action. It has started Catholic Energies, focused on solar power and energy efficiency. And it is encouraging advocacy in state capitals and Washington, D.C. “It’s made a difference and it’s continued to unfold,” Misleh said.

The Atlanta climate action plan has been or is being used as a point of reference for climate plans at the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where Archbishop Gregory now serves, and at dioceses in Boston, Columbus, Minneapolis, San Diego and elsewhere, Misleh and other Catholic leaders said.

But they acknowledged that there have been some dioceses and parishes less willing to embrace the climate fight due to competing priorities or resistance on political grounds. The Pew Research Center finds that Catholics are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and polarized, generally.

Still, Misleh and other Catholics who are deeply concerned about climate change don’t hesitate to engage Catholic conservatives who oppose abortion and reject the urgency to act on climate—a position not uncommon among Republicans.

“One cannot be concerned about the unborn and not be concerned about the world in which they are born into,” said Michael Terrien, who works on climate issues with the Archdiocese of Chicago, which serves 2.2 million Catholics.

In Atlanta, the climate action plan Varmaloff helped write directly replies to the suggestion that the encyclical runs counter to business, a common refrain in the South. Business is a “noble vocation,” the plan says, but it adds that Francis is asking for “is a future in which ‘all people can prosper personally and economically in harmony with the gifts God has given us in nature.'”

The Atlanta Archdiocese has been able to perform or schedule energy audits on about two dozen of its 103 parishes so far. St. Mary’s Catholic School in Rome, Georgia, for example, has 1,500 new energy-saving LED lights, cutting gym energy use in half, said Brian J. Savoie, the archdiocese sustainability program coordinator.

He said he has a simple message as he works with the parishes on energy efficiency: “Stop wasting, save money and fix the environmental burden.”

Spending less on heating, air conditioning and lighting leaves more money to go toward social justice work, like feeding and clothing the poor, said Kat Doyle, who heads up the Laudato Si’ initiative for the Atlanta Archdiocese.

“We want to tie all of this climate and energy work into how we are serving the least among us,” she said. “We have to change hearts first, then we have to change minds, and then we have to change behaviors.”

And, she said, Catholics must answer the question, “What does our faith call us to do?”

Greta Thunberg won a $1.15M humanitarian prize. She’s donating it all to environmental groups.

Greta makes bold demands at World Economic Forum

Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg is pledging to donate $1.15 million she’s won in prize money to groups working to fight climate change.

Thunberg was selected to win the inaugural Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity from 136 nominees from 46 different countries, the foundation said in a statement. She was chosen because of the way she “has been able to mobilise younger generations for the cause of climate change and her tenacious struggle to alter a status quo that persists,” said Jorge Sampaio, chair of the prize jury, in a statement.

In a Twitter video posted Monday, Thunberg responded by saying the earnings would be donated: “That is more money than I can begin to imagine, but all the prize money will be donated, through my foundation, to different organisations and projects who are working to help people on the front line, affected by the climate crisis and ecological crisis.”

Greta Thunberg sails across the Atlantic: Here’s what she accomplished while in the USA

Thunberg said she’ll donate $114,000 to the environmental organization SOS Amazônia to address the coronavirus pandemic in indigenous territories of the Amazon and another $114,000 to the Stop Ecocide Foundation, which works to make ecocide, or environmental destruction, an international crime.

Thunberg said that the rest of the prize money will go to causes that “help people on the front lines affected by the climate crisis and ecological crisis especially in the global South.”

The 17-year-old has also been named Time Magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, won Amnesty International’s top human rights prize and used money from the 2019 Swedish Right Livelihood Award, often presented as an alternative Nobel, to open the Greta Thunberg Foundation. The purpose of the nonprofit “is to promote ecological and social sustainability as well as mental health,” according to the Right Livelihood Foundation

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Greta Thunberg wins Gulbenkian Prize for Humanity, will donate money

The Impacts of Climate Change and the Trump Administration’s Anti-Environmental Agenda in North Dakota


Getty/Scott Olson

Getty/Scott OlsonHomes are surrounded by record-breaking floodwater from the Souris River in Minot, North Dakota, June 2011.

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Just in the past three years, the Trump administration has attempted to roll back at least 95 environmental rules and regulations to the detriment of the environment and Americans’ public health. Moreover, the administration refuses to act to mitigate the effects of climate change—instead loosening requirements for polluters emitting the greenhouse gases that fuel the climate crisis. This dangerous agenda is affecting the lives of Americans across all 50 states.

Between 2017 and 2019, North Dakota experienced one severe flood and one intense drought. The damages of these events led to losses of at least $1 billion.

Impacts of climate change

Extreme weather


  • North Dakota currently averages 10 heat wave days per year, but projections indicate that number will increase fivefold to nearly 50 days per year by 2050. This endangers the lives of the approximately 20,000 people living in North Dakota who are especially vulnerable to extreme heat.
  • Fargo, North Dakota, is the 10th fastest-warming city in the United States.

Impacts of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental policies


  • In March 2020, the Trump administration announced its final rule to overturn Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars. These weakened fuel standards will lead to higher greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions and will cost North Dakota residents $74.8 million
  • In August 2019, the Trump administration proposed eliminating federal requirements for oil and gas companies to control leaks of methane from new wells, storage facilities, and pipelines. In 2016, researchers found that the Bakken region in Montana and North Dakota, a significant oil and gas producing area, emits 275,000 tons of methane per year. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is responsible for one-quarter of greenhouse gas-driven global warming.
  • The Trump administration is attempting to gut climate considerations from major infrastructure projects by eliminating the “cumulative impact” requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act. This is concerning because North Dakota’s economy relies heavily on its agriculture, tourism, and outdoor recreation industries—all of which are highly dependent on climate and weather conditions.

Air quality

  • Mercury emissions in North Dakota decreased by nearly 55 percent from 2011 to 2017, yet the Trump administration just undermined limits on the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions that are allowed from power plants.

Water quality

  • On the fourth day of Trump’s presidency, the administration issued an executive order advancing the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. In June 2017, the pipelines were fully functional and over the next year saw more than one dozen small spills. In March 2019, more than 9,000 barrels of crude oil had spilled in North Dakota alone, which caused immediate impacts on nearby wetlands.

To read the personal stories of Americans affected by climate change and the impacts of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental policies in your state, visit