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International law is quiet on climate change responsibility

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globe_with_flags_4m8p_1hus-235x236If global climate change increasingly affects everything from public health to species extinction to infrastructure and property destruction to migration patterns—and it does—well, who can I sue about this?

No one apparently. If you think the international community’s struggles on what to do about climate change is pretty much a fragmented, inadequate mess, then international law on the subject is even messier and more inadequate.

A recent article in the Guardian notes that international law “stays silent on the responsibility for climate change.” This is not much of a surprise actually, but it’s actually important because if there were serious legal ramifications regarding climate change, faster action to mitigate its effects might occur.

“The global economy is underpinned by law, but you would think it had nothing to do with climate change,” Stephen Humphreys writes. “Climate-related cases have been absent from international courts – even from disputes involving human rights, investment or the environment. While there have been cases heard in some national courts, particularly in the US, they do not progress far.”

This weak legal response and virtually nonexistent regime means that “big polluters are getting off lightly.”

The article continues: “It is clear that 60% of proven oil reserves must be left in the ground if we are to have even a remote chance of limiting global warming to two degrees. Yet oil companies and exporters continue to drill and explore, to enjoy their assets and hedge against future losses, as though climate change were a mere financial risk rather than an existential threat to peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

“The world of international law is behaving as though the problem of climate change does not exist.”Look at one aspect, international trade law. An obvious policy for a country that’s serious about dealing with climate change would be to impose low carbon standards on the production of various everyday goods such as meat, mobile phones and plastics. “Does international trade law allow states to impose low-carbon standards on imported goods? The answer is yes and no,” Humphreys writes. “A low or zero-carbon import policy is almost certain to violate World Trade Organization (WTO) law. There may be viable policies but they will be time consuming and expensive to design, and there is no guarantee the WTO’s principal court won’t slap down any such policy on a technicality. No country has yet tried.“Why has the WTO not taken more proactive steps to tackle climate change? And why has the estimated $600 billion (£382 billion) in annual subsidies to fossil fuels never been challenged, while paltry subsidies to support renewable energy technologies have been stopped?”

These are unanswerable questions; and the questions become just as complex with respect to other international regimes, such as investment law and human rights law. A 2008 paper, “Global Climate Change and the Fragmentation of International Law” addressed this issue in highly academic terms, highlighting the challenges for international lawyers and policymakers “in navigating the relationship between the climate regime and the biodiversity regime, and the relationship between the climate regime and the multilateral trading system.”The authors concluded that a “narrow focus on conflicts misrepresents the multifaceted nature of climate change and precludes an adequate jurisprudential understanding of the relationship between the climate regime and other regimes.” They called for “improved understanding” and a “broadening of the debate.”

Seven years later, the needle has barely moved on any of this, but what is gaining some traction is the notion that it might be wise for international agreements to recognize national laws. Countries around the world are taking actions domestically to help cope with climate change. Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has conveniently collected the relevant laws and policies of various countries into a database.

So is it too much to ask that an international agreement on climate change include legally binding enforcement mechanisms with teeth. Hey, you know the answer.

Image: From the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law website.

With Inhofe in, is climate change out?

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ofam_climatechangeThe short answer is that climate change is no more out than it’s always been in the theater of absurd that’s the Senate, but now maybe more so.

That’s because James Inhofe at the controls of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee over the next two years, climate change will enter into an even more maddening and frighteningly hilarious era. Like whistling past the graveyard. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

9 December, 2014 at 6:05 am

25 years later and

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we’ve learned very little, except that fighting Big Oil and especially ExxonMobil is never-ending.

It’s been 25 years since the Exxon Valdez disaster. It’s a major reason for this blog’s existence; I’ve learned that ExxonMobil is bigger and more powerful than ever, and it’s grip on our lives is unrelenting.

ExxonMobil is an empire with it’s own set of rules; it does nothing that will weaken that empire.

A case in point from Friends of the Earth:

Despite the tragic damage to the ocean, wildlife and people, to say nothing of the score of spills since 24 March 1989, the oil industry and its supporters in Congress are pressuring the Obama administration to rescind a 40-year old ban on the export of U.S. crude oil. Lifting the ban would unleash a flood of oil tankers on our ports, significantly increasing the risk of another disaster.

“The Obama administration is turning a blind eye to the anticipated climate and environmental impacts of exporting fossil fuels like Bakken shale and Powder River Basin coal from the U.S., while at the same time touting a climate plan that claims to reduce our damaging impact here at home,” said Marcie Keever, Friends of the Earth’s Oceans and vessels program director. “On top of that, the administration may actually be considering lifting the ban on U.S. crude oil exports, which would exponentially increase climate change and the risks of more Exxon Valdez and Gulf oil spill disasters.”

An infographic, “Gateway to Extinction,” from Friends of the Earth and Healthy Planet/Healthy People details the potential threats posed by the proposed fossil fuel export terminal and pipeline projects in the Northwest. It also shows how lifting the ban would exponentially increase those threats.

gatewaytoextinction[carrie]10.14.13

Employees can’t afford to eat? Happy New Year!

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Happy New Year_Amodiovalerio VerdeWelcome to the New Year, same as the old year—in much of corporate America and the Republican Party.

A recent HBR Blog item by Peter Cappelli notes it was not all that long ago that companies worried about whether their employee practices were fair. “One of the functions of human resource departments was to advocate for the interests of employees.”

That was a long time ago in galaxy gar, far away. Shareholder activism as well as court cases sympathetic to shareholder interests have meant that the vast majority of companies pay more attention to maximizing stock prices, often at the expense of their employees. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

1 January, 2014 at 3:00 am

Pac coast gets it together on climate action

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HomePageStrip_PCCThe Pacific Coast Collaborative—comprising British Columbia, California, Oregon and Washington—issued the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy late last month, representing an historic government and regional commitment–it covers the world’s fifth largest economy–to a comprehensive and far-reaching strategic alignment to combat climate change and promote clean energy.

Oh and by the way, President Obama issued a new Executive Order designed to encourage Americans to incorporate climate change awareness into their activities and plans, a few days later. His action this week followed up the White House’s Climate Action plan, released in June. (Check here for the White House climate action infographic.) Read the rest of this entry »

PNW coal export scoping to include GHG impacts in Asia

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Photo by Paul K. AndersonThe coal industry’s plan to move millions of tons of coal through Pacific Northwest terminals to China and other Asian markets took a serious hit when Washington regulators said environmental impact reviews must consider the worldwide impact of burning the export coal in China.

A major battle surrounding the various export terminal proposals has centered on the “scope” of the environmental review process, such as whether the impact review would be limited to local port and terminal areas in the PNW region. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

3 September, 2013 at 5:00 am

New York City a floodplain by 2050? Believe it

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Hurricane Sandy Flooding Avenue C at East 6th StreetNew York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent warning and major initiative about the impact of climate change on the city might seem like something out of a science fiction novel, maybe Flood by Stephen Baxter. But it’s not SF.

Major portions of the city could be underwater sooner than you think if actions are not taken now.

“I strongly believe we have to prepare for what scientists say is a likely scenario,” Bloomberg said at a press briefing last month at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by William DiBenedetto

10 July, 2013 at 4:00 am

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