This week, more than 25,000 people gather at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow to address what is not only a global environmental catastrophe, but a global crisis of justice. In a series of four articles, Orion contributor and former board member Kathleen Dean Moore reports on an international human rights court ruling that transnational fossil fuel corporations and governments, in collusion, are directly violating rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After this summer of heat, floods, wildfire, and government inaction, a strong majority of Americans are now “alarmed” and “concerned” about climate change.
As directed, we follow the science: Unless nations take immediate action to stop greenhouse gas emissions, by the time today’s children are middle-aged, the life-supporting systems of the planet will be irretrievably damaged. At current rates of warming, planetary temperatures will warm 3.5 to 8°F by the end of the century, and rising sea levels will displace 2 billion people, almost a quarter of the world’s population.
As advised, we follow the money: As it drives global warming, the oil and gas sector of the world economy is on track to earn $21 trillion in 2021. The annual compensation for Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, just rose to $23.5 million, after a recent 25 percent raise. Joe Manchin—the coal magnate and U.S. senator (D-WV) who is now blocking any significant climate legislation—accepted $420,000 in fossil fuel donations during the Senate climate deliberations.
Now, we are called to follow our conscience: It’s wrong to wreck the world. Climate change seethes with suffering and injustice. Steeped in a toxic stew of capitalism and colonialism, the fossil fuel industry wrests land from the people and wealth from the land, leaving both people and land poisoned and poor. Those most directly harmed—the world’s poor, Indigenous, and people of color, and generations of children yet to be born to a planet that will not support their lives—have done nothing to deserve this assault.
Climate change is fundamentally a moral crisis and can be powerfully confronted on that field of engagement. “We’re not going to win this as bean counters,” Naomi Klein wrote in 2015. “We’re going to win this because this is an issue of values, human rights, right and wrong.”
“We’re not going to win this as bean counters.”
Moral power can change history.
Self-proclaimed realists might scoff that moral arguments don’t change history. But they are badly misreading their textbooks. Time after time, a rising wave of moral affirmation—a stubborn insistence on what is right—has “bent the arc” of history. Beyond a doubt, these changes are still in progress, and outcomes are uncertain. But when enough people stood up for what they knew was right, and stood against what they knew was irrefutably wrong, the moral story they told overwhelmed old assertions of righteousness based on conquest, power, and wealth:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—a moral principle if there ever was one—and the great European monarchies fell like dominoes.
“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” Lincoln said, and a nation went to war, ultimately freeing 20,000 African Americans from bondage.
“Hell no, we won’t go,” and an endless war finally ended.
“Black lives matter,” and they do, in still unfolding and powerful ways.
A small girl’s voice, “Shame!” and 4 million people took to the streets in the largest mass protest for action on global warming in history.
Is there a moral principle big enough to overwhelm the entrenched fossil fuel industries and their government allies?
Now, as nations gather for another chance, maybe a last chance, to stop the toxic violence of oil extraction, is there a moral principle big enough to overwhelm the entrenched fossil fuel industries and their government allies? If there is, it might be this:
Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: All people have the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
Human rights declarations offer powerful legal and moral leverage against the violence of international oil and gas corporations.
“Nothing could be more urgent . . . than finding apertures of resistance and protest exposing the calculated cruelty and indifference of the fossil fuel industry,” asserts Anna Grear, who is the founder of the Global Network for the Study of Human Rights and the Environment.
International human rights covenants offer particular moral clarity, based on global consensus about standards of minimally acceptable behavior. They undermine Big Oil’s financial, social, and legal impunity, even as the industry doubles down on its world-ending work.
The industry is in terrible moral peril. It has no well-rehearsed response to charges of iniquity, such as Greta Thunberg’s grim statement: “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But . . . I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil.”
The industry is in terrible moral peril.
Already, a rights-based strategy is surging on several fronts.
National courts require governments to protect universal human rights.
In the United States case of Juliana v. United States, twenty-one young people claim that the nation’s current energy policy is unconstitutional and violates their rights to life, liberty, and property. In a Canadian case, La Rose v. Her Majesty the Queen, fifteen children argue that the government’s actions in support of massive fossil fuel development violate their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The 2018 Urgenda case in the Netherlands marked an even more dramatic step. For the first time in history, a nation was required by its own courts to protect the human rights of its citizens—rights guaranteed not by that nation’s laws, but by the European Convention on Human Rights. The nation’s Supreme Court affirmed an order directing the Dutch government to slash carbon emissions 25 percent by 2020.
An international court hears previously silenced witnesses and names the wrongs against them.
The 2018 Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, an international human rights court that had previously exposed human rights abuses in Vietnam, Bhopal, and Chernobyl, found massive human rights abuses by the fossil fuel industry in collusion with governments. This is the first, and so far only, case of its kind. Although international courts have no enforcement powers, the tribunal informed the international legal imagination with innovative arguments about the human rights obligations of governments in a world staggered by climate change.
Perhaps the primary result of the tribunal was to hear the wrongs that are revealed when “the voices of the afflicted are given a space in which to speak the injustices done to them by a system radically tilted toward corporate plunder and profit,” in Anna Grear’s words. The hearing united the witnesses, not only as Big Oil’s intended victims, but also as champions of justice. This is important when, through greenwashing, harassing lawsuits, multimillion-dollar social media campaigns, and other deceits, fossil fuel companies try to outsource their shame onto those bearing the burden of their iniquity.
A human rights lens can reveal a vision of a better world.
As the UN Human Rights Council states, governments have the duty to “respect, protect, and fulfill” human rights without discrimination—that is, to stay out of the way of individuals’ exercise of their rights, to defend them from outside threats, and to take affirmative steps to create a world that nourishes human dignity and thriving.
Life is perilous, liberty is meaningless, and security of persons is impossible on a scorched planet whose life support systems are collapsing. However, the full manifestation of human potential is nurtured by fertile soil, reliable rain, abundant food, stable temperatures, and stable governments, as civilizations have found again and again. Thus, as the NAACP’s Jacqueline Patterson says, what is required is a “radical transformation from extracting, polluting, and dominating policies and practices that negatively impact our communities to regenerative, cooperative systems that uplift all rights for all people while preserving the environment.” It follows that shut it down and keep it in the ground are not only aspirational slogans. They are moral obligations.
What is required is a “radical transformation from extracting, polluting, and dominating policies.”
How shall we go forward?
Fossil fuels now rule every aspect of our lives, from the moment the alarm clock jerks us awake in the morning to the last moment, when we turn out the lights. Ending the hegemony of the largest industry on Earth will not be easy. It will take every possible strategy—including the radical reimagining of who we are on the planet, beings of such clumsy promise.
The struggle will not be a matter of winning or losing, but of small victories endlessly multiplied, a million micro tipping points as the work goes on. Although much has been lost, we can still save much—from great systems such as democracies and ocean currents, to individual species and particular human lives. This anxious child. That hidden songbird. This honorable senator. The shining ice.
We have powerful allies in this struggle. We have the collective moral wisdom of the planet, declared in international human rights covenants. Imagine that.
We have the conscience of the street, expressed in great shouts for justice and joy. Celebrate that.
We have the eager urgency of life itself, which will not be denied; it’s there in the shining eyes of children, in the exuberance of prairies and marshlands, in the weary pride of our ancestors and the wary trust of our descendants. Honor that.
Who, on this reeling planet, does not yearn for life, liberty, and security for themselves and their families? Fight for that.
The author would like to thank Thomas A. Kerns, whose ideas and knowledge fill these pages, and Carly Lettero, Shelley Stonebrook, and Emily Grubby, of the Spring Creek Project, whose goodwill, expertise, and endless work produced the foundations of this narrative. Overwhelming gratitude goes to Frank Moore, my bedrock. Some of the passages in these articles are adapted from Bearing Witness: The Human Rights Case Against Fracking and Climate Change.
Bearing Witness: The Human Rights Case Against Fracking and Climate Change, published by Oregon State University Press and edited by Thomas A. Kerns and Kathleen Dean Moore, tells the story of the landmark case through carefully curated court materials, including eyewitness testimony, legal and moral testimony, and the Tribunal’s Advisory Opinion. Essays by leading climate writers such as Winona LaDuke, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Sandra Steingraber and legal experts such as John Knox, Mary Wood, and Anna Grear give context to the controversy.
A forty-minute film about the Tribunal, Bedrock Rights: A New Foundation for Global Action Against Fracking and Climate Change, is available free online. The film, created by the Spring Creek Project, features appearances by Jacqueline Patterson, of the NAACP; Winona LaDuke, of Honor the Earth; Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream; and many others. It powerfully showcases the Tribunal’s findings that the oil and gas industry and their government allies routinely violate the right to clean water, Indigenous rights to the land, the right to life and health, and the right to information and participation. Spring Creek offers assistance to any groups that would like to hold a community screening of the film. Contact them here.
Documentary production and videography was provided by Fire+Bird Films.