Earth Day 2023: What Einstein Would Say About Climate Justice

To avoid doing the same wrong thing by pledging goals without political will and resolute determination achieved through a proactive and effective mechanism that is implementable globally, some initial agreements should be reached.

by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

I Can hear climate change in my sister’s cough. Aaron Saad, Worlds at Stake

Earth Day is on April 22nd and the theme this year is “Invest in the Planet”.  There is no further elaboration in this message as to who should invest; of what nature that investment should be; or how one should invest.   But then, we can turn around and say that we have a history of talking about it, from 1992 in Rio with the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development to the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) right down to COP/27 (27th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC)  in Egypt in November 2022.  In the process, we have coined some fancy terms – like heat dome; wet-bulb temperature; climate anxiety; climate grief; carbon neutral; net-zero; emissions trading; carbon pricing; carbon offsetting.  Aaron Saad, in his book Worlds at Stake: Climate Politics; Ideology and Justice has added to this jumbled maze of terminology the word “Solastalgia” which denotes a homesickness we might feel without ever leaving our home, where we lament how comfortable we were before climate change started roasting us with global warming, causing floods, forest fires, unnaturally frequent tornados and the like.

[Photo Credit: Craig Pattenaude ]

Now, we are desperately trying to achieve a 1.5% degree world (measured against pre industrialized world levels of warming) without doing anything much about it. This is where the celebrated Albert Einstein comes in with his lasting definition of stupidity – doing the same wrong thing and expecting a different result. Post COP/27 responses of the more influential States to what Antonio Gutters, Secretary General of the United Nations called for  at COP/27 – a global climate pact –  amply resonate the Einsteinian definition of stupidity.  Despite the fancy words of climate conventions  and the 1.5% aspirations, what strikes one in this confederacy of pomp and circumstance is the diversity of opinion and approach.  China and India – two of the biggest users of coal – have given every indication that they intend to keep using coal, let alone reduce their use. Of the big polluters, only Britain and Australia had at the time presented new climate targets. The United States and China had not submitted anything, while the European Union was working on a redefinition of the National Voluntary Contributions to reflect the additional cuts that will result from plans against the energy crisis and to release Russia’s gas.

One of the greatest obstacles to combatting climate change at the global level is the lack of political will which can be put down to the arbitrary and capricious stance adopted by States.  This feckless insouciance of States to come to a cohesive and coordinated unity in acting as one in the battle against global warming acts as a serious problem.  As of September 2022, only 38 countries had filed their National Adaption Plans.  These plans are calculated to reduce vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, by building adaptive capacity and resilience; facilitate the integration of climate change adaptation, in a coherent manner, into relevant new and existing policies, programmes and activities, in particular development planning processes and strategies, within all relevant sectors and at different levels, as appropriate.

COP/27 ended with the retention of the 1.5c goal (compared to preindustrial levels) and an agreement on a fund to compensate developing countries for losses and damage caused by the climate crisis. However, the conference failed to agree on concrete steps to wind down the use of fossil fuels.

Earthday.org which organizes Earth Day gives some ways we as individuals can contribute: plant trees; reduce plastic consumption; participate in advocacy; eschew wasteful fashion trends and generally “vote Earth”.  This is certainly a proactive list for citizenry.  However, as Aaron Saad says correctly “These are not solutions to an urgent and worsening moral crisis.  Real solutions call for a political program of response that has morality as its core and its overriding priority”. The morality Saad speaks of can be linked to climate justice which in turn would at least partially make reparations (to the planet) against a “climate debt” owed by the major polluters over the years.  Saad cites in his book two main  factors to consider the moral aspect of climate justice: the major polluters over a sustained period of time – throughout the ages in fact – have been developed countries and therefore they must bear primary responsibility;  the second factor is that historically, contributions of carbon emissions to the atmosphere have been extremely unequal : “ just six developed countries account for 41% of cumulative emissions from 1751 to 2020: The United States (24.4%); Germany (5.45%); The United Kingdom (4.7%); Japan (3.9%); Canada and Australia combined (3%).  The entirety of Africa accounts for just 2.9% and India 3.4%”. However, in 2023 China has taken the lead with 13.8% of pollution in the historical context, producing goods for consumption in Europe and North America in particular.

If climate justice is to be administered, Saad suggests the need to answer five questions: who ought to do what: who will be impacted and why; what the moral significance of climate impacts is (which inevitably touches on human rights); whose concerns matter; and most importantly, what is driving the crisis and preventing responses. Once these questions are answered, climate justice – in all its moral imperative – should have an implementation  tool that would strengthen enforceability which in turn  would obviate Einstein’s definition.

My Take

This defining issue for humanity’s sustenance cannot be solved nor comprehensively discussed in a short essay.  However, a good start would be to identify the issue from scratch progressively as follows.  We are aiming at global warming of 1.5°C  which is to limit the increase in the global average surface temperature compared to the pre-industrial period (1850–1900). COP/27 saw many countries agreeing to pursue efforts to this limit in the Paris Agreement of 2015, which aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its recent report, says that  global warming of 1.5°C is likely to be reached between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. As already discussed, so far, the 193 States comprising the international community of nations have given no indication that positive measures adequate to reach this goal are being taken. The recommendation of the IPCC, if exceeding this limit is to be avoided, is that global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) should fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

Lock step with this goal is the compelling requirement to achieve rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and industrial systems. These transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options. The attendant benefits of restricting warming to 1.5°C, compared to 2°C or higher, are clear: lower risk of climate-related impacts on human health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth. This cannot be achieved without significant costs and trade-offs.

What should be done?

To avoid doing the same wrong thing by pledging goals without political will and resolute determination achieved through a proactive and effective mechanism that is implementable globally, some initial agreements should be reached. For one, new fossil fuel infrastructures should be prohibited. Much of the current energy structure may have to be decommissioned. This era that we are Contemporaneously, tin – Capitalocene (an off shot of Anthropocene) – in terms of neo-liberal market economics of control exerted by huge multinational corporations and climate change deniers would have to be reexamined. More government involvement in terms of implementable policy and regulation should be encouraged.  Contemporaneously, there should be more spent on research and development that would pave the way forward to a green economy.

One way to achieve this goal is to fit into a relatively new concept called the Global Administrative Law Theory (GAL) – also sometimes referred to as legal pluralism – which came to light in the first decade of this Century.   The GAL Project is focused on an emerging field of research and practice where administrative law-type mechanisms that address issues of transparency, participation, accountability, and review operate within the parameters of global governance.

The GAL theory posits that administrative law and its principles must be applied not as a mutually exclusive realm but in conjunction with the principles of international law and other related disciplines.  Like domestic administrative law, GAL could be an amalgam of a scholarly approach or methodology and a set of actual norms, “practices,” or activities or mechanisms.  In other words, GAL would be a combination of the legal rules, principles, and institutional norms that apply to administration from a global perspective rather than a structure that demonstrates and exhibits a mere intrastate legal and political realm of authority.

To enforce climate justice we have to go back to the very beginning of the Bible where in The Book of Genesis (1:26-28)  it is said “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground”.

To rule over the world, we must have enforceability founded on unswerving political will.  For now, all that we know is that we have botched our mandate as defined in the Book of Genesis.

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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