Number 580 July 10, 2015

This Week: Climate, Climate, Climate

"Quote" of the Week: "A True Ecological Approach Always Becomes a Social Approach"
Going The Way of the Dinosaurs
"Global Warming as a Human Rights Violation"
Sunset of the Empire: "Unthinkable Even Two or Three Years Ago"



This issue continues a midsummer "catch-up" series, in which I try to clear things off my desk. There has been so much news about climate and weather that my head is spinning. I thought I should see if I could get your head spinning, too. Things are changing fast, both in nature and in sociological terms. Can our social change keep up with climate change? That's up to us. Maybe some of the news that you see in Nygaard Notes will push you over the edge into taking some action. I certainly hope so.

The next issue I hope will have some excerpts from the Pope's new climate change document, Laudato Si'. It's fascinating stuff, and with more than a billion Catholics in the world, it could be very important.

Stay cool,



"Quote" of the Week: "A True Ecological Approach Always Becomes a Social Approach"

"We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear /"

That's from Section V: Global Inequality, from Laudato Si', the June 18th environmental encyclical by Pope Francis ("On Care for Our Common Home"). It's well worth a read. Just aim your search engine at "Laudato Si." I may do a feature on this encyclical, in part because it has been referred to as "radical" and also because, as the London Guardian put it, the document has engendered a "collective tantrum" among conservatives. Why is that? Stay tuned to Nygaard Notes.


Going The Way of the Dinosaurs

On June 19th the journal Science Advances published an article headlined "Accelerated Modern Human–induced Species Losses: "Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction." Here's the first paragraph:

"The evidence is incontrovertible that recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth's history. Our analysis emphasizes that our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years. If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue, humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits. On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to rediversify. Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations—notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change. All of these are related to human population size and growth, which increases consumption (especially among the rich), and economic inequity. However, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing."

The story got little attention in the United States, although alarming headlines appeared elsewhere in the world, such as in The Daily Times of Pakistan: "The 6th Mass Extinction on Earth Has Begun & Could Threaten Humanity's Existence." Or London's Daily Telegraph: "'Mass Extinction' on Scale That Wiped out Dinosaurs." My favorite is the headline in The Timaru Herald of New Zealand: "We're the Walking Dead on the Highway to Hell." They're referring to the human race and, despite the melodramatic phrasing, that headline doesn't really overstate the case, depending on your definition of hell.

Even though the New York Times did not judge the story worthy of publication in the paper edition, a few days later an online Times blog had a good headline: "Skyrocketing Extinctions Put Humans at Risk." The lead sentence put it like this: "In a blunt and frightening paper published in the journal Science Advances, the authors say that 'We can confidently conclude that modern extinction rates are exceptionally high, that they are increasing, and that they suggest a mass extinction under way—the sixth of its kind in Earth's 4.5 billion years of history.'"

One day before that article appeared the Pope released his encyclical on climate change. He, too discussed what he calls the "loss of biodiversity," and speaks of the material and spiritual consequences for the human race that are looming even before we get to the mass extinction stage. He says that "The earth's resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems.

"It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential 'resources' to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right."

The Pope may call the rampant and reckless extermination of untold species a sin, but whatever one may call it, going down this path is endangering all life on the planet. Humans included.


"Global Warming as a Human Rights Violation"

It is nearly universally accepted that a primary—if not the primary—job of a national government is to protect its citizens. On June 24th, a Dutch court made a ruling that said, in essence, that this principle requires the Dutch government to take tangible and immediate action to protect its citizens against the dangerous effects of looming climate change. In what many are calling a landmark ruling, the court said

"The State must do more to prevent the threats caused by climate change, given its duty to care for the protection and improvement of the environment. Effective control of the Dutch emission levels is a task of the State. In addition, the costs of the measures ordered by the court aren't unacceptably high. The State cannot hide behind the argument that the solution of the global climate problem is not just dependent on Dutch efforts. Every reduction in emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change. As an industrialized nation, the Netherlands should be a frontrunner in this respect."

The precedent for this ruling (although it wasn't cited by the court, as far as I know) was enunciated on March 1, 2015, by a group of experts in international law, human rights law, environmental law, and other law, who met and adopted the Oslo Principles on Global Obligations to Reduce Climate Change. In it, they declared, "Avoiding severe global catastrophe is a moral and legal imperative." And not only that, but "Human beings, because of their unique nature and capacities, have an essential duty, as guardians and trustees of the Earth, to preserve, protect and sustain the biosphere and the full diversity of life within it."

Environmentalists the world over hope that the Dutch ruling sets "a new global precedent for a state's obligation to its citizens in the face of the growing climate crisis."

The lawsuit was brought by an environmental group called Urgenda. The American Association for the Advancement of Science reports that "The case framed global warming as a human rights violation that the Dutch government must do more to prevent."

The authors of the Oslo Principles explain, in the preamble to that document, that "International law entails obligations to act cooperatively to protect and advance fundamental human rights, including in the context of climate change and its effects on people's ability to exercise such rights. Threatened human rights include, but are not limited to, the right to life, the rights to health, water, food, a clean environment, and other social, economic and cultural rights, and the rights of children, women, minorities and indigenous peoples."

Common Dreams reports that columnist Nick Meynen (who is one of 10,000 Belgians who on April 27 launched a similar case against their government) spoke recently with Roger Cox and Nic Balthazar, the "driving forces behind the Dutch and Belgian climate court cases." They say, according to Meynen, that they are working with colleagues to launch similar suits in Australia, Brazil, Austria, England, Ireland, and Norway. "All of them are closely watching the Dutch court," Meynen wrote.

The idea that a government is legally required to take action to protect its citizens from a known threat is an important precedent, and one that we in the U.S. would do well to note. (Climate change deniers are challenging the very idea of "known" in this context.) What's new here is the idea that a "known threat" is not only criminals and belligerent states, but also includes any developing situation that has a predictable dangerous outcome. No specific "bad guy" need be in the picture. This is new territory, and indicates a legal embrace of a systemic, or structural approach to defining "threat." Very important.

The online news site Think Progress, in a June 24th article headlined "A Dutch Court Just Did The Unthinkable On Carbon Emissions," summed up the meaning of the court's ruling very succinctly. The ruling means, they said, that "It's illegal to knowingly ignore the dangers of global warming." That is, ignorance—intentional or not—does not absolve governments from legal obligations, nor does denial.

Despite its obvious relevance to U.S. responsibility for climate change, the Dutch court's ruling got very little coverage in this country. The New York Times, in a brief article on the ruling, quoted Michael B. Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, who said, "I think this will encourage lawyers in several other countries to see if they have opportunities in their domestic courts to pursue similar litigation." Will environmentalists in the U.S. step up?


Sunset of the Empire: "Unthinkable Even Two or Three Years Ago"

The New York Times headline on May 15th read, "Defying U.S., Colombia Ends a Drug Tactic." The tactic to which they refer is tactic that has long formed a part of the Clinton-era anti-drug program known as "Plan Colombia." That's the Plan which the Obama State Department considers an "outstanding success story" and human rights defenders consider "an unmitigated disaster," according to a recent article by the North American Congress on Latin America, or NACLA.

Part of the larger "War on Drugs," which was declared by Richard Nixon in 1971, Plan Colombia included a regime of aerial spraying of coca fields, apparently based on the long-discredited idea that such "supply reduction" would somehow reduce cocaine use in the United States. This despite the numerous studies which show that "supply-side eradication efforts almost always fail to reduce the supply of drugs or rates of drug use."

There was a time when most countries in the Western Hemisphere would do as they were told by the United States, even when what they were told to do was poisoning their people and increasing violence in their homeland. That's how Empire works. But now, as the Drug Policy Alliance noted in a 2014 article, there is a "growing defiance across Latin America at decades of U.S.-driven, militarized drug policy and its devastating consequences for the region." More evidence of this defiance rolls in every day, as this news item from the middle of May illustrates.

As reported by the Times and many others, what happened in May was that Colombia announced that it would stop the aerial spraying the chemical glyphosate. Glyphosate is the active (and carcinogenic) ingredient in the Monsanto product known as RoundUp, which has been the main (perhaps the only) herbicide used in the coca-eradication campaign. RoundUp is the world's most widely used herbicide, in part due to the demand from the Colombian spraying. Perhaps all of this has something to do with the fact that Monsanto, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, "consistently outspends all other agribusiness companies and interest groups" in its Washington lobbying efforts.

The Times comments that "The decision [to ban glyphosate] ends a program that has continued for more than two decades, raising questions about the viability of long-accepted strategies in the war on drugs in the region."

What it really raises questions about is the ability of the U.S. to call the shots in the hemisphere. Indeed, the Times notes that "Before Thursday's decision, the United States had pressed the Colombian government to continue the spraying program." In the old days, that would have done the trick. These are not the old days.

It's not just Colombia, either. An article from June 2014 in NACLA's Report on the Americas puts the recent Colombian decision in context:

"Since President Nixon first declared the War on Drugs over 40 years ago, the U.S. government has used its political and economic muscle to dictate policies throughout the region. Now the tables have turned as Latin American countries have emerged as a driving force. Numerous factors have contributed to the waning influence of Washington on this and other policies. The surge in left-leaning governments in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia has challenged Washington's historic patterns of unilateralism and interventionism. The growing economic influence of Brazil, the economic recession in the United States, and the decline of U.S. foreign assistance have all contributed to this trend. Interestingly, the reformist leanings on drug policy do not break down on ideological grounds, with Guatemala's right-wing president joining left-wing presidents in Uruguay and Ecuador to advocate for an end to prohibitionist drug policies, while left-wing governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua strongly support the status quo."

The speed of the decline in U.S. dominance is indicated by a few quotations from the NACLA article. First is Colombia's Minister of Justice and Human Rights, speaking to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, who said that "Despite using all of these measures [for drug eradication], we have not, as is the case in the rest of the world, achieved the desired results." Speaking to the same group, the Mexican representative asserted that "strategies to reduce demand and supply…should not cause more harmful effects than the damage…generated by the demand and supply of drugs." NACLA notes that "Such statements would have been unthinkable even two or three years ago. But now, such concerns are routinely expressed by sitting presidents and officials from key Latin American countries."

And so the so-called War on Drugs, declared when the U.S. Empire was still near the height of its powers, winds down. How will the national and international anti-drug bureaucracy be dismantled? Or, will it? And what will take its place? Whatever happens, it looks like Latin America, not the United States, may lead the way into the future.