Ecocide for climate safety: Setting up a system to Keep It In The Ground

The Great Transition Initiative just published an article on the concept of Ecocide in the context of international Law by Femke Wijdekop, together with a thoughtful online debate between the author and various responders. As a proponent of climate justice I’m excited to see how this concept, which in the global north is all too often neglected and underplayed, is taken up outside of the realm of activism. Both the Dutch climate case and the End Ecocide campaign show the immense potential for climate justice in existing systems. I believe it is essential to not only infuse existing systems with a healthy dose of climate justice but to create new systems based on the finite nature of our planet to replace and complement existing systems. In short, I want to explore how we make “System change not climate change” a reality.

Climate Justice is an important concept and for it to be truly just to future generations it needs to guarantee climate safety. For this reason I’d like to contribute constructive criticism regarding the current Ecocide and Climate Justice approach. I’d also like to present a bold project that aims to guarantee climate safety in the fairest and most effective way.

As a supporter of the End Ecocide campaign I find it quite difficult to reduce the broad idea that Earth itself has a right to life to adding one amendment to an international agreement. The idea can have huge implications: A cultural and economic shift away from extractivism through a redefinition of the human-nature relationship. Why limit ourselves to only go after the worst of the worst offenders?

The answer popped up several times in the discussion. Ecocide is a gliding scale, not a binary condition. Everyone makes a negative impact, simply by living, breathing and consuming. It prompts the question: Are we all ecocidal? Do we live in a culture of ecocide? Should we all be behind bars? Where do we draw the line?

In law there is a term to deal with this issue: Proportionality. Luckily for our case, climate scientists are crystal clear on what is proportional. Be it for an individual or society as a whole: consumption should take place within the regenerative capacity of Earth. This makes consumption outside of this regenerative capacity, more commonly known as overconsumption, a form of ecocide. Having an international law against ecocide does not address unintended ecocide as a result of overconsumption1.

Robert Hickey said this very well in his reply to Femke Wijdekop’s article: “the crux of the problem: ever more people consuming even more things and the unintended consequences that result. It is the negligence and unintended consequences of my own actions (and the actions of almost every individual on Earth) that are, in aggregate, the foundations of environmental destruction. The car I drive, the planes I fly on, the meat I eat.”

Making overconsumption punishable isn’t a feasible or practical idea in my opinion. We need a mechanism to put our collective consumption of especially problematic resources such as all sources of fossil carbon within the safe limits determined by climate scientists. The fairest way to do this is from a climate justice perspective: every person has a right to an equal amount of fossil carbon within the planetary carbon budget.

Like the Dutch climate case, we should see this as a rights issue, not a negotiation or COP21 type of agreement. Just as with the law, the climate system is not something to be negotiated with.

In Allen White’s contribution the question “Absent a truly global governance mechanism, can nation-state–driven multilateral accords, replete with self-interest and power imbalances, rise to the challenge of convergent threats that leave little time for concerted action?” was raised. The track record of this international approach in the last 4 decades on addressing environmental issues makes it highly doubtful that nation-states can guarantee climate safety. And having visited the COP21 as a delegate last winter I don’t believe we can expect the changes we need from nation-states. The problem I’m spending most of my free time on is on the underlying problem: the lack of a truly global governance mechanism. For me that ties in perfectly with GTI’s mission: shaping a civilised planetary future. A citizens’ initiative could set up such a mechanism on a planetary scale. It would involve by managing the atmosphere as a global commons. This is exactly what Feasta’s CapGlobalCarbon project intends to do. We need a Global Climate Trust to place a limit on fossil fuel production, and return proceeds to people on an equitable basis. A Trust founded on such principles would set a declining cap on fossil fuel extraction that ensures the necessary reductions in total global carbon emissions are achieved. By issuing dividends based on the value of permits, it would address climate and global poverty together. As a citizen-led initiative, it could prod governments to take action, and act as a backup to the UNFCCC process.

How would it work? A citizen’s movement would call for an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions that delivers revenues from GHG permit sales to individuals. The permits would be sold to the upstream fossil fuel companies, and the scarcity rent earned would be returned to the public as climate dividends. A global cap would provide assurance to individual nations that their reductions will not end up simply as “clearing space” under the budget that others will fill. The cap would be dictated by climate science, the carbon-price would be dictated by the market and the dividend would be dictated by the one-person, one-share principle. The Cap would keep the majority of fossil fuels in the ground and the Share would distribute the wealth from the portion that is extracted broadly through common wealth dividends. Whereas a tax would set the price but not the quantity of fossil fuels, in this case the quantity of fossil fuel that can safely be extracted would be set by the cap, and the price would fluctuate to reflect the scarcity in the market.

This provides society with a direct control on the amount of fossil carbon entering Earth’s atmosphere, which can be altered over time based on the latest climate science and the price on carbon. This relatively simple intervention changes our problem of having more fossil fuels than we can safely extract into an optimal situation where society will extract only what makes sense economically and ecologically. The lack of government involvement in setting the price or other forms of negotiation make this a transparent and effective solution for making sure the true scarcity of fossil carbon is reflected in the price at any point in time.

How does this link into ecocide? Simple: the production and consumption of fossil fuels not carrying a permit means that these fuels are outside of the carbon budget and are a direct source of dangerous levels of climate change. Non-compliance is in this case a form of ecocide. Having a law against ecocide would greatly enhance the campaign for – and implementation of – the CapGlobalCarbon mechanism.

CapGlobalCarbon can be seen as a direct application of the concept of ecocide to the issue of climate change. We divide and mark the carbon reserves as either “safely burnable” or “unburnable”, to use the Carbon Tracker jargon.

The CapGlobalCarbon team is currently gathering a critical mass of NGO’s, Think Tanks and climate justice groups to make this idea reality before it is too late. A global law against ecocide and a global cap on fossil carbon extraction seem to me the two key, mutually reinforcing, conditions for a sustainable society.


1 Whether or not Ecocide was caused intentionally or unintentionally shouldn’t matter if we take the precautionary principle seriously. One is just as responsible for taking an action as for inaction, especially when the consequences (such as a warming planet) can reasonably be expected to be known by anyone.

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