To save our planet, we need to criminalise ecocide | Climate Crisis

Fear without choice is debilitating, but fear as a motivator for change is a cause for hope.

As last month’s 26th session of the Climate Conference of the Parties (COP26) slowly falls off the news agenda, every single one of us must continue to remember what has been promised there, and do everything we can to ensure those promises are delivered. We must also continue to demand more. To survive, we need to transform social, economic and technical aspects of our way of life. We can no longer afford to be complacent.

As Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate noted in her recent book A Bigger Picture, species are going extinct at a rate greater than the time of the dinosaurs. And as Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, explained in her opening speech at COP26, island nations are now facing a death sentence.

One powerful solution to break this bloody chain of damage is to get “ecocide” recognised as a serious crime in international law.

The word ecocide combines the Greek “oikos”, meaning house/home (and later understood to mean habitat/environment), with “cide”, meaning to kill. It literally means “killing one’s home”.

In legal terms, ecocide is defined as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

Criminalising ecocide would give everyone on this planet the ability to hold companies and governments to account for starting or continuing with the extraction of fossil fuels. An ecocide law could give us a fighting chance to save our future.

From extended draughts in the dry corridor in Central America, to rising sea levels in the Ganges deltas, to climate-exacerbated conflicts in the Sahel and exponentially increasing flooding in Europe, there is no denying that we are at the height of a man-made crisis.

Nine major cities could be under water by 2030 if we do not drastically change society now –  imagine a world without Amsterdam, Bangkok, Venice or New Orleans. And right now, in most of the world, no one is held responsible. It’s time to change the laws. It’s time to protect our home.

Everyone should know the word “ecocide”, especially the biggest polluters on our planet, the 20 companies – the Chevrons, Exxons, BPs and Shells of this world – who are responsible for a third of all carbon emissions.

If ecocide were to be criminalised, we could not only punish mass polluters for the damage they cause, but also prevent the advent of new fossil fuel companies and projects. Criminalising ecocide will thus slow down our fossil fuel consumption as we transition to green energy. In a world where ecocide is a crime, not species but exploitative profit-driven fossil fuel companies will become extinct.

As Farhana Yamin, environmental lawyer and participant in climate negotiations for more than 30 years, explained in her recent Manifesto for Justice for COP26 and Beyond, “the atmosphere, ocean, soils and forests don’t get to negotiate. Smaller countries and Indigenous people are nature’s custodians. Mother Earth may be mentioned in the Paris Agreement, but she lacks any legal standing.”

It is also true that poorer countries, Indigenous peoples, small-scale farmers, children and the poor did not cause the climate crisis, do not get much of a voice in climate negotiations, but will suffer the consequences of climate change.

Not only will criminalising ecocide be part of the solution for saving humanity, but it will give the most vulnerable in society, and nature itself, a voice.

Right now, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) lists four crimes: Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes and Crimes of Aggression (recently added).

The statute can be amended to add a fifth crime: Ecocide.

Any state which has ratified (officially agreed to) the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) may propose an amendment. There are currently 123 of these “states parties”. For the amendment to be considered, a majority of those present and voting at the next annual assembly of the ICC should agree to do so.

The ICC Assembly works on a one-state, one-vote basis. The voice of a small Pacific Island is therefore just as powerful as that of a large nation – and there are far more small island states than there are “large” nations. There has never been a more suitable time for this discussion. States will want to be seen to be taking this issue – and therefore this amendment – seriously.

To transition from proposal to law, at least a 2/3 majority of states parties (currently 82/123) must be in favour of the amendment. Once the law is adopted into the statute, the crime exists. States parties can then ratify (officially submit their agreement) and enforce the crime of ecocide into their own national law.

COP26 is now over, but what enforceability is there in place to prevent corporations and states from breaking commitments made? There is a gaping black hole of accountability and enforcement. A law on ecocide could fill that hole.

Ecocide law will be preventative, and will also offer accountability. It will allow environmental lawyers to cite “ecocide” when holding a company or government to account. If ecocide were to be recognised in law, companies would struggle to start new fossil fuel projects like oil fields – because oil fields harm surrounding ecosystems and result in ecocide.

We are against the clock.

The campaign to criminalise ecocide is not a new one. “Stop Ecocide” was the brainchild and life’s work of the incredible late lawyer and activist Polly Higgins. Today, lawyers, campaigners, and activists are taking up Polly’s work to once and for all get “ecocide” into the law books as a lifeline for humanity and vulnerable ecosystems on our precious blue planet.

Along with political, diplomatic and economic initiatives, the law has a role to play in transforming our relationship with the natural world, shifting that relationship from one of harm to one of harmony. We, as a species, have been pillaging for too long. Let’s be the guardians, the problem solvers and not only reverse what we have started but find a better way of living with our natural world that is not only sustainable but regenerative. We must put an end to ecocide, we must put an end to killing ourselves.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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