Oxfam, with the Climate Justice Program and Advocates for International Development are running a competition.
We are calling on lawyers, academics and law students worldwide to put forward the strongest legal case possible to demonstrate that rich countries’ greenhouse-gas emissions are violating the human rights of people in developing countries
The group want entrants to base their imaginary case on the fictional victims of climate injustice in the made up country ‘Algoria’. (Al-Gore-ia. Geddit?)
The complaint (etc.) should:
1. identify the plaintiffs, which may be the State of Algoria, and/or any of its citizen(s) or other groups, whom you consider could have a valid cause of action under international law;
2. identify the defendant State(s), which should be an actual State or actual States;
3. specify the remedy or remedies sought; and
4. set out the arguments for any of these obligations that you consider are enforceable before that forum.
The intention of the competition is ‘to emphasize the international obligations of states, stimulate innovation and progress in international law addressing climate change, and to bring public attention to the urgency of the matter’. But once again, it is more Oxfam’s intellectual poverty than a meaningful understanding of poverty, inequality and injustice that is revealed by its campaigning. Take, for example, the words of Oxfam’s Kate Raworth,
When vulnerable communities have tried to use human rights law for climate justice, it has thrown up major weaknesses. It’s extremely difficult for people in poor countries to identify who to sue, how to prove the injury done, or even where to bring their case.
The first thing that Kate needs to understand is that there is no such thing as ‘climate justice’. It is meaningless. Justice for the climate? Justice from the climate? Justice to the climate? Justice of the climate? Justice with the climate? It makes no sense. Justice does not exist between objects in the world, nor between objects and people. Justice (or injustice) exists between, and only between people. We can conceive of civil or social justice and criminal justice because, as concepts, they assume that people bear responsibilities to others.
Oxfam wish to construct the idea of ‘climate justice’ in order to establish the idea that acts are transmitted through the environment and inflicted on others. But this is nonsense. None of us can aim our actions at another through the environment in the way we can aim a gun at another, or to rob them, as is understood through the concept of criminal justice. Neither can we select groups, and oppress them, exploit them, or deprive them of what they need through the environment, as can be understood through the concept of social justice. In both these conceptions of justice, the way one party acts on another is direct. We can explain how an act of aggression is inflicted upon people. We cannot do the same thing with the climate. It is impossible to substantiate the claim that any climate event or change is the consequence of anthropogenic climate change. Even if it could be demonstrated that climate change had caused a particular problem, the ‘crime’ that the ‘victim’ is the subject of is not defined by the action of the perpetrator, but by the status of the ‘victim’. If I were to somehow make it rain more on your house it would annoy you. But the drains would carry the water away. If I were to make it rain less on your house, you’d probably thank me. That same ‘act of aggression’, inflicted on someone who, we must assume, has enjoyed a ‘stable climate’ (even though no such thing exists anywhere), but who existed in a society which could not extend such benefits to him, might cause him harm.
Oxfam asks its imaginary legal team to consider that,
Last week, you read an article in the Algoria Times reporting the Algorian Environment Minister as saying that, “We’re going to suffer massively from climate change. It’s already happening and undermining the human rights of our people. I blame the developed world. They’ve got to stop dragging their feet, reduce their emissions and pay up for their past profligacy. If they can’t come up with a fair negotiated deal at the UN by the end of 2009, we should take them to court instead to make them do it.”
The second thing Raworth needs to understand is that the climate does not give people rights. Accordingly, the climate cannot take their rights away. Just as ‘justice’ describes acts between moral actors, rights are given by people to themselves. The ‘right’ to a stable climate is a nonsense because it is not something which can be given by anyone to another any more than the weather can be controlled. Someone entitled to a ‘stable climate’ has as much a complaint about a natural shift in climate as he does about a hypothetical anthropogenic one. In both cases his complaint is identical – his rights have been trampled upon. But who is he going to take his complaint about an ‘act of god’ to? How would the court trying Oxfam’s fictional case under ‘international law’ (whatever they think that is) determine and make a distinction between ‘natural’ and anthropogenic shifts in climate, resulting in the injured party’s loss of a ‘right’ to a stable climate?
Oxfam’s morality play is set in
Algoria (an imaginary country) is a small, mid-latitude, developing country. With high mountain regions in the north, the majority of its population live in the mangrove-fringed fertile coastal plain to the south, mostly making their basic living from small-scale agriculture and fishing, benefiting from the glacier-fed rivers. Some progress has been made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, with notable reductions in cases of measles and maternal mortality. Significant expenditure is planned, with the help of international development assistance, to provide clean water and basic sanitation facilities for the 60% of the population with no access to them. But about 40% of the population still live on less than one US dollar a day, and over 25% of children under five are underweight.
Their conception of development is somewhat skewed. It asks for rights and ‘justice’ for people who make a ‘basic living’ from ‘small scale’ agriculture. The problem is that where justice is in greater supply, people no longer live such lifestyles. People who expect, and demand, and fight for justice and rights do not expect, demand or fight for ‘basic lives’ and for ‘small scale agriculture’. This is because there is nothing about ‘basic lives’ and ‘small scale agriculture’ which creates justice and rights. On the contrary, basic lives are an injustice; people deserve more. What is more, people whose lives are consumed by small scale agriculture necessarily lack the material means to organise themselves to demand and to create justice and rights. Oxfam’s ambitions to provide things such as ‘basic sanitation’, for example, miss the point. It is as if they believe it can be possible for there to be poverty and ‘justice’. To anyone with any sense of justice, this is a contradiction.
Progress, in Oxfam’s story, for example, is understood as ‘reductions in cases of measles and maternal mortality’ and ‘basic sanitation facilities’. This is not progress. Progress is the eradication of measles and maternal mortality (or as good as), and the provision of advanced – not basic – sanitation. ‘Basic sanitation’ is a pit in the ground full of shit. That is not progress. Progress is civil infrastructure. Why isn’t Oxfam arguing for sewers and piped water, and for roads, and factories, and businesses, and power stations?
It is curious that while Oxfam celebrates ‘basic lives’, it aims to ‘stimulate innovation and progress in international law addressing climate change’. That kind of ‘innovation’ and ‘progress’ are neither.
In this strange world of Algoria, development is impossible (it causes climate change) and progress is a zero-sum game (our ‘profligacy’ is their poverty). It is in this fantasy world that Oxfam’s conception of ‘environmental justice’ is invented.
Oxfam celebrate basic lives, and basic sanitation. Meanwhile, it turns anyone with more than basic sanitation who lives more than a basic life into the culprits of a ‘climate crime’. The result is that it tells people in the developing world, and the industrialised world how they ought to live, and what they ought to expect. Oxfam has ceased to be a development charity, and has become an undevelopment charity.