To stop climate disaster, make ecocide an international crime. It’s the only way | Jojo Mehta and Julia Jackson
The Paris agreement is failing. Yet there is new hope for preserving a livable planet: the growing global campaign to criminalize ecocide can address the root causes of the climate crisis and safeguard our planet – the common home of all humanity and, indeed, all life on Earth.
Nearly five years after the negotiation of the landmark Paris agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and associated global warming to “well below 2.0C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5C”, we are experiencing drastically accelerating warming. 2020 was the second warmest year on record, following the record-setting 2019. Carbon in the atmosphere reached 417 parts per million (ppm) – the highest in the last 3m years. Even if we magically flipped a switch to a fully green economy tomorrow, there is still enough carbon in the atmosphere to continue warming the planet for decades.
The science is clear: without drastic action to limit temperature rise below 1.5C, the Earth, and all life on it, including all human beings, will suffer devastating consequences.
Yet only two countries – Morocco and the Gambia – are on track to meet the 1.5C target. The largest emitters, including the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, are putting the world on course for 4C. At that rate, the polar ice caps will melt, causing dramatic sea level rise that will – in combination with other devastating effects like strengthening storms and droughts – cause mass famine, displacement and extinction.
Currently, much of humanity feels hopeless, but the establishment of ecocide as a crime offers something for people to get behind. Enacting laws against ecocide, as is under consideration in a growing number of jurisdictions, offers a way to correct the shortcomings of the Paris agreement. Whereas Paris lacks sufficient ambition, transparency and accountability, the criminalization of ecocide would be an enforceable deterrent. Outlawing ecocide would also address a key root cause of global climate change: the widespread destruction of nature, which, in addition to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, has devastating impacts on global health, food and water security, and sustainable development – to name a few.
Ecocide shares its roots with other landmark concepts in international law, including genocide. Indeed, ecocide and genocide often go hand in hand. Around the globe, ecological destruction is also decimating indigenous communities. To give just a few cases: Brazil’s Yanomami are facing mercury poisoning generated by the 20,000 illegal miners in their territories. 87% of Native Alaskan villages are experiencing climate-related erosion, even as they face growing calls to drill on their lands.
Conviction for ecocide would require demonstrating willful disregard for the consequences of actions such as deforestation, reckless drilling and mining. This threshold implicates a number of global and corporate leaders through their complicity in deforesting the Amazon and Congo basins, drilling recklessly in the Arctic and the Niger delta, or permitting unsustainable palm oil plantations in south-east Asia, among other destructive practices.
As a term, “ecocide” dates to 1970, when Arthur Galston, an American botanist, used it to describe the appalling effects of Agent Orange on the vast forests of Vietnam and Cambodia. On the 50th anniversary of the concept, we can take heart in the growing civic will to officially make ecocide an international crime.
Already, citizens, scientists and youth activists including Greta Thunberg are calling on global leaders to introduce ecocide at the international criminal court (ICC). Following the lead of climate-vulnerable ocean states Vanuatu and the Maldives in December 2019, President Emmanuel Macron of France vowed to champion it on the international stage last June and has proposed a version of it in French law. Finland and Belgium both expressed interest during the ICC’s annual assembly, and Spain’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee has issued recommendations to consider it. The EU has also voted to encourage its recognition by member states. And Pope Francis was ahead of the game in November 2019 when he called for ecocide to become an international crime against peace. The Stop Ecocide Foundation has recently convened a panel of heavyweight international lawyers to draft a robust legal definition of ecocide which this growing list of states can seriously consider proposing as an amendment to the ICC’s Rome Statute.
Criminalizing ecocide gives us the unprecedented chance to create a protective measure with legal teeth that could deter reckless leaders from damaging, short-sighted policies creating accountability in a way that Paris does not.
Just as important, we could motivate corporations to make dramatic shifts away from an unacceptable status quo that too often favors the destruction of nature for short-term profits. As ecocide becomes an impending legal reality, corporate leaders would be forced to adapt, and quickly, re-examining the way they do business and make decisions with our planet in mind.
But ecocide would not just be a punitive measure for corporate leaders. It would also offer considerable opportunities for new sustainable ventures. The pristine areas that ecocide targets – virgin forests, wetlands and our oceans – are precisely the places that have value far beyond mere extractive industries, including in sustainably developing new pharmaceuticals that may help in the current Covid-19 pandemic and in future pandemics. True leaders in the public and private sector would much prefer ethical, sustainable and long-term value creation that does not exploit nature or humanity. By outlawing bad actors, we will empower many more good ones.
As a global community, we cannot wait for more warning signs or the “right moment”. Last year alone has seen devastating examples of ecocide: fires ravaging the Amazon, the Congo basin, Australia, Alaska and Siberia all at unprecedented rates; a large oil spill in Ecuador; and unending, accelerating plastic pollution, which could weigh up to 1.3bn tons by 2040. Unfortunately, under cover of Covid-19, ecocide has accelerated. Deforestation in the Amazon basin increased by 50% in the first quarter of 2020, with rampant fires reaching a 13-year high in June.
In the midst of a global pandemic that demonstrates humanity’s shared vulnerability – and our need to work together collectively in the face of crisis – we must begin to understand that what we do to our ecosystems, we do to ourselves.
Indeed, the meaning of ecocide is fully encapsulated by its etymology. It comes from the Greek oikos (home) and the Latin cadere (to kill). Ecocide is literally “killing our home”.