Community Rights: Because Climate Conferences Won’t Stop Climate Change

In These Times: Rural America
January 17th, 2017
By: Thomas Linzey

Regulating harm, legalizes harm

The sheer immensity of the impacts of global warming forces us to recognize that humans on this planet do, indeed, have the power to bring the earth’s complex web of life crashing to the ground. Not only is this bad for all other living beings on the planet, but our collective actions also place the very survival of the human race in the balance.

Up until now, the law and governments of industrialized nations have attempted to provide protection for the planet through a system of environmental regulations, which have come up short. Those regulations are often drafted by the very corporations ostensibly regulated by them. They most often serve to legalize industrial practices, such as fracking for oil and gas. These practices cause severe harm to the environment (including global warming pollution).

While indigenous nations have long seen nature as something other than a “thing” that can be bought and sold, Western systems of law continue to classify nature and ecosystems as merely property. Because of that, the more nature that can be owned, the more can be legally destroyed by the owner.

The community rights movement

That’s starting to change in the United States. Over the past fifteen years, three dozen municipal governments across the country have adopted local laws recognizing that natural communities and ecosystems have a right to exist and flourish. Part of a movement toward “community rights,” these communities have determined that the survival of ecosystems in their municipalities is so intertwined with their own well-being, that nature must be protected by the highest protections available within the law.

In 2008, the people of Ecuador blazed an international path toward the “rights of nature” by including recognition of ecosystem rights within their national constitution. Since then, residents have brought enforcement cases under those provisions. They have succeeded in judicial recognition of the constitutional rights of rivers and other natural communities in Ecuador.

While scientists and climate negotiators mostly speak in terms of human impacts, we must begin to see the planet and its atmosphere as an ecosystem unto itself, worthy of being accorded the highest rights-protections. Thus, not only are some communities working to adopt a human “right to climate” as part of their laws, but many are also working to adopt a “right of the climate”—the right of the planet’s ecosystem to be healthy and unaffected by human-caused global warming emissions. This is a recognition that the climate itself, as an integral function of planet earth, must be recognized as having rights of its own; rights that we are duty-bound to protect and enforce.

If we fail to use this pivotal moment to transcend our 18th century governing systems, which generally ignore nature and ecosystems, then over the next several decades small islands nations will see their very countries underwater. If we do not evolve toward a system of law and governance that incorporates an indigenous understanding of nature, then over the next several decades we could suffer a thousand more climate conferences and it won’t make a bit of difference.

There is a different path, one that communities in the United States and activists in other nations are pioneering. They’re moving forward with the understanding that the change that is needed won’t immediately be embraced at the international level. Rather, it will require first making change at home, where it is possible to do so now, in our own communities.

Read more at In These Times: Rural America.