Archive for Ethics

Understudied Implications of the AR4: The Precautionary Principle

Posted in The Precautionary Principle with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2010 by Cory Morningstar

Climate Change: The Normative Dimensions of IPCC’s Approach to Scientific Uncertainty

I. Introduction
On 2 February 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its “Summary for Policymakers” as part of the IPCC Working Group I Fourth Assessment Report (AR4).1 This report describes progress in understanding the human drivers of global climate change, observed climate change, and estimates of future climate change. The AR4 differs from prior IPCC assessments insofar as there is greater scientific confidence concerning estimates of climate sensitivity, earth–atmosphere warming, sea level increase, and human attribution to climate change. The type of information used in making decisions about climate change has ethical implications because it influences decisions on whether and/or how humans take action to mitigate and adapt to climate change and because the decisions obviously affect human and environmental welfare for both present and future generations.2 Following, we describe the mission of the IPCC, some of the contents of the AR4 and their implications, and the potential use of the precautionary principle in climate change assessments.

II. The Mission, Structure, and Function of IPCC
The United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization convened the IPCC in 1988. Any member of the United Nations is or can be a member of IPCC. (No individual scientists or other individuals are members). Scientists participating in the IPCC are chosen by their respective governments and currently there are about a thousand who participate. Undoubtedly, the IPCC represents the world’s most expert group on climate change. The IPCC recently received the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore for its work on climate change

The UN–mandated charge for the IPCC is to review the scientific and technical peer–reviewed literature on climate change in an unbiased comprehensive manner and to reduce speculation when possible; it does not conduct original scientific research.3 Consequently, when using information from peer¬–reviewed literature the IPCC defaults to the norms used in scientific literature and almost all scientific journals require the use of evidence about which there is a high degree of confidence; this means that speculation is reduced when possible. In its use of scientific literature the IPCC also tries to assign probability statements to the conclusions it reaches.

Typically, every five years or so the IPCC issues detailed reports on “The Scientific and Physical Basis for Climate Change,” “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability of Climate Change,” and “Mitigation of Climate Change.” In addition, a shorter synthesis report also is published by IPCC that is intended for policy makers; the AR4 is an example. The IPCC reports are used by national governments to inform climate change policies. The IPCC also supports the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol by providing scientific and technical advice. The summary reports are produced on the basis of a consensus of IPCC member governments and such reports receive much attention by policy makers and the media. All of the reports include analysis of various scenarios that describe future development paths in various sectors such as energy and projections of future greenhouse gas emissions.

III. IPCC’s AR4 Summary Report

The IPCC’s AR4 concludes with high confidence (90 percent) that the globally averaged net affect of human activities since 1750 primarily has been one of human–induced warming. According to the IPCC, such warming is virtually certain (greater than 99 percent probability of occurrence) to contribute to warmer and fewer cold days and nights over land areas; virtually certain to contribute to warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most land areas; very likely (greater than 90 percent probability of occurrence) to contribute to increased frequency of warm spells over most land areas; very likely to contribute to heavy precipitation events; and likely (greater than 66 percent probability of occurrence) to increase the incidence of extreme high sea levels.

Despite the fact the IPCC in AR4 unequivocally documents global climate change and attributes a significant amount of change to human activities there is risk that the impacts of climate change could be worse than stated in the AR4. One example is that the IPCC decided to limit its projections of temperature changes within a 90 percent confidence level and, therefore, discounts a comparatively small but significant risk of larger temperature increases than those projected; if larger than projected temperature increases occurred this would, among other things, disproportionately affect regions in high latitudes as well as exacerbate climate change problems for future generations. A second example is that the IPCC (primarily) decided to exclude comparatively lower probabilities of rapid dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets and therefore discounts serious and irreversible damages, e.g., sea level rise on the order of, say, four to six meters over a period of decades.4 Finally, a third example is that IPCC decided to exclude non¬–linear events that might result in higher or more rapid increases in temperature or sea level rise.

The IPCC’s decision to exclude lower probability events that might lead to higher or more rapid increases in temperature or sea level rise is consistent with its mission to avoid speculation. In this sense, the IPCC is conservative insofar as being careful to avoid making attributions about climate change under conditions of scientific uncertainty. The conservative nature of the IPCC’s reports probably contributes to their being viewed as authoritative and widely–accepted and might well be necessary given that the reports are produced by consensus. As will be discussed, this kind of a decision is embedded with understudied implications, due in part to the complexity of scientifically researching many of these implications, the difficulty of providing policy responses, and a lack of reporting on these issues by the media. As such, these understudied implications need additional examination for scientists, policy makers, and the public to fully understand the scope of possible risks.

IV. Understudied Implications of the AR4: The Precautionary Principle
In practice, scientific information developed by the IPCC is determined by the capabilities of scientific methods and tools as well as by the policies and agendas promulgated by the IPCC. Because global climate change is incredibly complex it will never be understood with full scientific certainty and decisions therefore must be made on how scientists and public policy makers should deal with the uncertainty. Some of the sources of scientific uncertainty include: (1)informational uncertainty; (2) limitations of available analytical tools and methods; (3) complexity and indeterminacy of climate, ecosystem, and human social/economic systems; and (4) the need to make value judgments at all stages of problem identification, analysis, and solution implementation. In addition, the IPCC policies and agendas include decisions on such things as: (1) evaluation of the needs and requirements of those who use information from emission scenarios; (2) what types of emission scenarios to use and what types are most effective for what purposes; (3) what roles IPCC should play in development and assessment of new emission scenarios; (4) whether to include in its scenarios and reports speculative evidence about serious or irreversible impacts or only include evidence about which there is a high level of confidence; and (5) how to determine and describe uncertainty.

On the one hand, IPCC recognizes an obligation to: (1) summarize what is known about climate change; (2) describe research needed to improve that knowledge; and (3) identify what is unlikely to be known before climate changes actually occur. On the other hand, policy makers prefer simplicity and a focus on “high likelihood” scenarios and projections. Consequently, scientific uncertainty in climate change is derived from the limits of scientific methods, tools, theories, and interpretative practices, from the institutional policies of the IPCC, and what the IPCC is requested to focus on by member nations. Because of these various contingencies, the IPCC decisions to bound temperature projections within a 90 percent confidence level, to exclude dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, and to exclude non–linear events that might result in higher or more rapid temperature or sea level rise are value–laden and normative, and not strictly based in scientific rationales.

The aforementioned decisions reflect a “tension” between conventional scientific norms to base conclusions on information about which there is a high–level of confidence in order to reduce speculation and other public policy or other concerns we might have. For example, the IPCC decision to exclude consideration of impacts because of lack of high levels of confidence about information constrains a comprehensive analysis of some impacts that pose serious or irreversible harm to the environment and human health. The IPCC decision to adhere to conservative norms (i.e., high levels of confidence) has likely hindered wide–spread and public discussion about the limits of certainty, and the wisdom of not taking into account low-chance high-impact events. Had the IPCC been willing to be more speculative and, e.g., consider threats from non–linear events or dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, the public and public policy makers would more likely have been better prepared to recognize and confront scientific uncertainties in formulating responses to these environmental threats. Finally, the IPCC decisions can increase the chance of some people concluding that there are no risks of some impacts when, in fact, there might be. For example, the fact that IPCC did not consider dynamical melting of the Greenland or Antarctic Ice Sheets already has been interpreted by some that sea level rise greater than projected in AR4 will not happen despite some scientific evidence to the contrary.5

In making decisions about whether to bound temperature projections within a 90 percent confidence level, to exclude dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, and to exclude non–linear events that might result in higher or more rapid temperature or sea level rise, the IPCC could have used the “precautionary principle” to guide its decision making. The precautionary principle expresses the view that:

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. In the application of the precautionary principle, public and private decisions should be guided by: (1) careful evaluation to avoid, wherever practicable, serious or irreversible damage to the environment; and (2) an assessment of the risk–weighted consequences of various options.6

Fundamentally, the precautionary principle stems from ethics, i.e., what criteria ought to be used to promote environmental and human well–being. Essentially, it puts into operation the ethical view that scientific uncertainty should not be used as a reason to postpone actions to protect the environment or human health when there are potentially catastrophic impacts of certain human behaviors. By using the precautionary principle, climate scientists and policy makers can promote: (1) preventable actions in the face of uncertainty (e.g., mitigation or adaptation to dynamical melting of ice sheets); (2) shifts in the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity that might have serious or irreversible impacts (e.g., enhanced utilization of fossil fuels); (3) exploration of alternatives to possibly harmful actions (e.g., renewable energy resources or effective methods of carbon sequestration); and (4) increases in public participation in decision making (e.g., encouraging the public and affected parties to be involved in decision making about low probability events with serious or irreversible impacts). In this respect, use of the precautionary principle would provide more compelling reasons for nations to reduce their share of emissions to safe levels.

Support for the precautionary principle is based on the view that it ought to be used in policy and decision making when there are gaps in knowledge and uncertainties about risks and their probabilities, when there are uncertainties as to the costs and benefits of actions which impose risks, and when risks have serious public policy and ethical consequences which require decision makers to rely on multiple lines of evidence from diverse disciplines and constituencies. The precautionary principle, then, is meant to ensure that the public good is represented in all decisions made under scientific uncertainty. When there is substantial scientific uncertainty about the risks and benefits of a proposed activity, policy decisions should be made in a way that errs on the side of caution with respect to the environment and the health of the public.

If the IPCC had explicitly considered in AR4 the risks of higher temperatures outside the boundary of a 90 percent confidence level, dynamical melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, and non–linear responses to drivers of climate change this would have enabled public policy makers to be more effective in formulating responses to climate change under conditions of scientific uncertainty. Further, had it done so this might have contributed to implementing the precautionary principle in responding to risks from a globally changing climate.

V. Summary

The problem of how to deal with scientific uncertainty in addressing the problem of global climate change is complicated and from a public policy standpoint needs to be dealt with. Nevertheless, most scientists and public policy makers, including the IPCC, typically adopt conventional scientific norms of using high levels of confidence or high probabilities of occurrence when making conclusions. In this commentary, I have tried to briefly outline some potential problems of IPCC’s use of such norms in AR4 and, further, have suggested that a greater use of the precautionary principle might overcome the problems. Policy makers and scientists need to understand that how scientific uncertainty is approached raises normative and ethical questions. These normative questions need to be expressly identified so that they are not hidden in scientific descriptions of impacts of human actions. This is particularly the case when there are scientifically plausible but insufficiently understood serious and irreversible consequences of human actions.

John Lemons
Professor of Biology and Environmental Science
Department of Environmental Studies
University of New England
Biddeford, ME 04103

1. (IPCC) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Summary for Policy Makers. IPCC Secretariat: c/o WMO, Geneva, Switzerland. (

2. Brown, D, N. Tuana, and 23 other authors. 2006. White Paper on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change. Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State University, PA. 40 pgs.

3. (IPCC) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007. Procedures: Preparation of IPCC Reports. IPCC Secretariat: c/o WMO, Geneva, Switzerland. (

4. Alley, R.B. 2007. Changes in Ice: The 2007 IPCC Assessment. Testimony of Dr. Richard B. Alley, Pennsylvania State University before the Committee on Science, United States House of Representatives, 8 February 2007, Washington, DC.

5. Pilke, R. (Jr.). 2007. Clarifying IPCC AR4 Statements on Sea Level Rise. (

6. Kriebel, D., Tickner, J., Epstein, P., Lemons, J., Levins, R., Loechier, E. L., Quinn, M., Rudel, R., Schettler, T., and Stoto, M. (2001). The Precautionary Principle in Environmental Science. Environmental Health Perspectives 109: 871-876.


Bolivian President Evo Morales | 20 Ways to Save Mother Earth and Prevent Environmental Disaster

Posted in Peoples’ World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights in Bolivia with tags , , , , , on February 17, 2010 by Cory Morningstar

Capitalism’s glorification of competition and thirst for limitless profit are destroying the planet.

December 15, 2008

Sisters and brothers, today our Mother Earth is ill. From the beginning of the 21st century we have lived the hottest years of the last thousand years.

Global warming is generating abrupt changes in the weather: the retreat of glaciers and the decrease of the polar ice caps; the increase of the sea level and the flooding of coastal areas, where approximately 60% of the world population live; the increase in the processes of desertification and the decrease of fresh water sources; a higher frequency in natural disasters that the communities of the earth suffer[1]; the extinction of animal and plant species; and the spread of diseases in areas that before were free from those diseases.

One of the most tragic consequences of the climate change is that some nations and territories are the condemned to disappear by the increase of the sea level.

Everything began with the industrial revolution in 1750, which gave birth to the capitalist system. In two and a half centuries, the so called “developed” countries have consumed a large part of the fossil fuels created over five million centuries.


Competition and the thirst for profit without limits of the capitalist system are destroying the planet. Under Capitalism we are not human beings but consumers. Under Capitalism Mother Earth does not exist, instead there are raw materials. Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world. It generates luxury, ostentation and waste for a few, while millions in the world die from hunger in the world. In the hands of capitalism everything becomes a commodity: the water, the soil, the human genome, the ancestral cultures, justice, ethics, death … and life itself. Everything, absolutely everything, can be bought and sold and under capitalism. And even “climate change” itself has become a business.

“Climate change” has placed all humankind before a great choice: to continue in the ways of capitalism and death, or to start down the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.

In the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the developed countries and economies in transition committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5% below the 1990 levels, through the implementation of different mechanisms among which market mechanisms predominate.

Until 2006, greenhouse effect gases, far from being reduced, have increased by 9.1% in relation to the 1990 levels, demonstrating also in this way the breach of commitments by the developed countries.

The market mechanisms applied in the developing countries[2] have not accomplished a significant reduction of greenhouse effect gas emissions.

Just as well as the market is incapable of regulating global financial and productive system, the market is unable to regulate greenhouse effect gas emissions and will only generate a big business for financial agents and major corporations.

The Earth is much more important than the stock exchanges of Wall Street and the world

While the United States and the European Union allocate $4100 billion to save the bankers from a financial crisis that they themselves have caused, programs on climate change get 313 times less, that is to say, only $13 billion.

The resources for climate change are unfairly distributed. More resources are directed to reduce emissions (mitigation) and less to reduce the effects of climate change that all the countries suffer (adaptation)[3]. The vast majority of resources flow to those countries that have contaminated the most, and not to the countries where we have preserved the environment most. Around 80% of the Clean Development Mechanism projects are concentrated in four emerging countries.

Capitalist logic promotes a paradox in which the sectors that have contributed the most to deterioration of the environment are those that benefit the most from climate change programs.

At the same time, technology transfer and the financing for clean and sustainable development of the countries of the South have remained just speeches.

The next summit on climate change in Copenhagen must allow us to make a leap forward if we want to save Mother Earth and humanity. For that purpose the following proposals for the process from Poznan to Copenhagen:

Attack the structural causes of climate change

1) Debate the structural causes of climate change. As long as we do not change the capitalist system for a system based in complementarity, solidarity and harmony between the people and nature, the measures that we adopt will be palliatives that will limited and precarious in character. For us, what has failed is the model of “living better”, of unlimited development, industrialisation without frontiers, of modernity that deprecates history, of increasing accumulation of goods at the expense of others and nature. For that reason we promote the idea of Living Well, in harmony with other human beings and with our Mother Earth.

2) Developed countries need to control their patterns of consumption — of luxury and waste — especially the excessive consumption of fossil fuels. Subsidies of fossil fuel, that reach $150-250 billion[4], must be progressively eliminated. It is fundamental to develop alternative forms of power, such as solar, geothermal, wind and hydroelectric both at small and medium scales.

3) Agrofuels are not an alternative, because they put the production of foodstuffs for transport before the production of food for human beings. Agrofuels expand the agricultural frontier destroying forests and biodiversity, generate monocropping, promote land concentration, deteriorate soils, exhaust water sources, contribute to rises in food prices and, in many cases, result in more consumption of more energy than is produced.

Substantial commitments to emissions reduction that are met

4) Strict fulfilment by 2012 of the commitments[5] of the developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least by 5% below the 1990 levels. It is unacceptable that the countries that polluted the planet throughout the course of history make statements about larger reductions in the future while not complying with their present commitments.

5) Establish new minimum commitments for the developed countries of greenhouse gas emission reduction of 40% by 2020 and 90% by for 2050, taking as a starting point 1990 emission levels. These minimum commitments must be met internally in developed countries and not through flexible market mechanisms that allow for the purchase of certified emissions reduction certificates to continue polluting in their own country. Likewise, monitoring mechanisms must be established for the measuring, reporting and verifying that are transparent and accessible to the public, to guarantee the compliance of commitments.

6) Developing countries not responsible for the historical pollution must preserve the necessary space to implement an alternative and sustainable form of development that does not repeat the mistakes of savage industrialisation that has brought us to the current situation. To ensure this process, developing countries need, as a prerequisite, finance and technology transfer.

Address ecological debt

7) Acknowledging the historical ecological debt that they owe to the planet, developed countries must create an Integral Financial Mechanism to support developing countries in: implementation of their plans and programs for adaptation to and mitigation of climate change; the innovation, development and transfer of technology; in the preservation and improvement of the sinks and reservoirs; response actions to the serious natural disasters caused by climate change; and the carrying out of sustainable and eco-friendly development plans.

This Integral Financial Mechanism, in order to be effective, must count on a contribution of at least 1% of the GDP in developed countries[6] and other contributions from taxes on oil and gas, financial transactions, sea and air transport, and the profits of transnational companies.

9) Contributions from developed countries must be additional to Official Development Assistance (ODA), bilateral aid or aid channelled through organisms not part of the United Nations. Any finance outside the UNFCCC cannot be considered as the fulfilment of developed country’s commitments under the convention.

10) Finance has to be directed to the plans or national programs of the different states and not to projects that follow market logic.

11) Financing must not be concentrated just in some developed countries but has to give priority to the countries that have contributed less to greenhouse gas emissions, those that preserve nature and are suffering the impact of climate change.

12) The Integral Financial Mechanism must be under the coverage of the United Nations, not under the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and other intermediaries such as the World Bank and regional development banks; its management must be collective, transparent and non-bureaucratic. Its decisions must be made by all member countries, especially by developing countries, and not by the donors or bureaucratic administrators.

Technology transfer to developing countries

13) Innovation and technology related to climate changes must be within the public domain, not under any private monopolistic patent regime that obstructs and makes technology transfer more expensive to developing countries.

14) Products that are the fruit of public financing for technology innovation and development of have to be placed within the public domain and not under a private regime of patents[7], so that they can be freely accessed by developing countries.

15) Encourage and improve the system of voluntary and compulsory licenses so that all countries can access products already patented quickly and free of cost. Developed countries cannot treat patents and intellectual property rights as something “sacred” that has to be preserved at any cost. The regime of flexibilities available for the intellectual property rights in the cases of serious problems for public health has to be adapted and substantially enlarged to heal Mother Earth.

16) Recover and promote indigenous peoples’ practices in harmony with nature which have proven to be sustainable through centuries.

Adaptation and mitigation with the participation of all the people

17) Promote mitigation actions, programs and plans with the participation of local communities and indigenous people in the framework of full respect for and implementation of the United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The best mechanism to confront the challenge of climate change are not market mechanisms, but conscious, motivated and well organised human beings endowed with an identity of their own.

18) The reduction of the emissions from deforestation and forest degradation must be based on a mechanism of direct compensation from developed to developing countries, through a sovereign implementation that ensures broad participation of local communities, and a mechanism for monitoring, reporting and verifying that is transparent and public.

A UN for the environment and climate change

19) We need a World Environment and Climate Change Organisation to which multilateral trade and financial organisations are subordinated, so as to promote a different model of development that environmentally friendly and resolves the profound problems of impoverishment.  This organisation must have effective follow-up, verification and sanctioning mechanisms to ensure that the present and future agreements are complied with.

20) It is fundamental to structurally transform the World Trade Organiation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the international economic system as a whole, in order to guarantee fair and complementary trade, as well as financing without conditions for sustainable development that avoids the waste of natural resources and fossil fuels in the production processes, trade and product transport.

In this negotiation process towards Copenhagen, it is fundamental to guarantee the participation of our people as active stakeholders at a national, regional and worldwide level, especially taking into account those sectors most affected, such as indigenous peoples who have always promoted the defense of Mother Earth.

Humankind is capable of saving the Earth if we recover the principles of solidarity, complementarity and harmony with nature in contraposition to the reign of competition, profits and rampant consumption of natural resources.


[1] Due to the “Niña” phenomenon, that becomes more frequent as a result of the climate change, Bolivia has lost 4% of its GDP in 2007.

[2] Known as the Clean Development Mechanism

[3] At the present there is only one adaptation fund with approximately $500 million for more than 150 developing countries. According to the UNFCCC secretary, $171 billion is required for adaptation and $380 billionis required for mitigation.

[4] Stern report

[5] Kyoto Protocol, Art. 3.

[6] The Stern Review has suggested one percent of global GDP, which represents less than $700 billion per year.

[7] According to UNCTAD (1998), public financing in developing countries contributes with 40% of the resources for innovation and development of technology.

Evo Morales is the president of Bolivia.

Bolivia: We Must Support a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth

Posted in Peoples’ World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights in Bolivia with tags , , , on February 14, 2010 by Cory Morningstar

Pablo Solón and Comrac Cullinan

For Bolivia, December marked an important and historic step forward in climate change politics. We are of course not referring to Brokenhagen, where we saw the worst of intransigent, undemocratic and cynical tactics from the world’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide. The interesting action happened in a completely unreported event in New York when on 22 December, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution which put the issue of Mother Earth rights as an item on the UN agenda.

This might sound rather esoteric, when you consider that in Copenhagen, it was the failure of rich nations to set ambitious and binding specific targets that led to the conference’s rightly discredited conclusion. For Bolivia, which is already facing unprecedented droughts, disappearing glaciers and water shortages, the difference between a target of 2 degrees or 1 degree is a matter of life and death for many. But we also believe that even if we had succeeded in achieving consensus on these important issues, we would still have left with a flawed agreement.

This is because the UN climate change framework does not deal with the root causes of climate change and the wider problem of environmental exploitation. Climate change is like a fever that is symptomatic of an underlying disease which must be cured before the fever will dissipate. The underlying cause is the belief that humans are separate from, and superior to, nature and that more is better. These beliefs have fueled the misconceived and doomed attempts of industrialized, consumer-based societies to achieve lasting human well being by exploiting and damaging Earth.

Bolivia’s proposal for Rights for Mother Earth is therefore about tackling these fundamental underlying issues. For centuries indigenous communities have warned that if human communities are to remain part of the Earth community they must behave as respectful members. We call our planet Pachamama, Mother Earth, because we know we cannot live without her. This understanding is supported not only by ancient spiritual traditions but also by contemporary science which continues to reveals the complex interdependence of life on earth. These perspectives are coming together in what is known as “Earth jurisprudence.”

Stabilizing the climate at levels that allow human life to flourish will require human societies to meet our needs in a way that contributes to, rather than degrades, the health of the ecological communities which sustain us. This will require balancing human rights against the rights of all the other members of our planet.

And this stated position isn’t just more hot air in the atmosphere. Bolivia, Ecuador and other Latin American countries already have begun the process of defining such a development path. We use terms like “living well” to describe a way of life that seeks not to live “better” and at the cost of others and nature, but in harmony with all. The struggles of indigenous people and social movements in Latin America have enabled this perspective to be enshrined in the Bolivian and Ecuadorian constitutions.

On 22 April 2009 President Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia called on the General Assembly of the United Nations to develop a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. His proposal has received backing from nine countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). The recent UN General Assembly resolution approved in December now calls on all countries and the Secretary General to share their experiences and perspectives on how to create “harmony with nature.” In Bolivia, we hope to take this proposal forward in a People’s Assembly on climate change that we are organizing on Mother Earth Day, 22 April 2010.

So what would rights for nature look like? One of the most important implications is that it would enable legal systems to maintain vital ecological balances by balancing human rights against the rights of other members of the Earth community. Presently many environmentally harmful human activities (including those that cause climate change) are completely lawful. Most legal systems define everything, that is not a human being or a corporation, as property. Just as slave laws, which turned humans into property, entrenched an exploitative relationship between the two, our legal systems have entrenched an exploitative and inherently damaging relationship between ourselves and Earth. Even most environmental laws do little more than regulate the rate at which environmental destruction may take place.

If legal systems recognized the rights of other-than-human beings (e.g. mountains, rivers, forests and animals), courts and tribunals could deal with the fundamental issues of environmental contamination rather than being bogged down in the technical details of permitted pollutants and emissions. For example, a rights-based approach could evaluate whether the rights of humans to clear tropical forests for beef ranching should trump the right of species in those forests to continue to exist. Instead of devising ever more complex schemes to authorize environmental damage and to trade in the right to pollute, we would focus on how best to maintain the quality of the relationship between ourselves and Earth.

In 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, it was a declaration of hope into a post-war world. It had no legal basis as a document. Sixty years on the declaration has been incorporated into the laws of many countries and been the basis for the International Criminal Court. Facing a crisis far worse than any world war, might it not be time for humanity to launch a new declaration, one that defends our planet and its biodiversity from ever-continuing extinction?

Pablo Solón
is the Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations. Cormac Cullinan practices as an environmental lawyer and is the author of Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice.

Posted by Bolivia Rising on Wednesday, December 30, 2009

the precautionary principle

Posted in The Precautionary Principle with tags , , , on February 14, 2010 by Cory Morningstar

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” – Wingspread Statement

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