In the news: stories relevant to international environmental law

We are now moving on to International Environmental Law in our IL course. Here are some recent stories to get us thinking:

First, you may want to look at this projection of “what Earth will look like if we melt all the ice”. Florida is gone, amongst other changes.

Second, it is worth looking at the issue of fragmentation (and incoherence) in international environmental law. This is an important theme is this issue-area. Marc Benitah notes over at the International Economic Law and Policy Blog that the Faroe Islands are issuing simultaneous complaints under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and at the WTO. The WTO overlaps with a lot of other fora, so this is not entirely surprising. But the ramifications are important. One question I have is how small countries such as this can expect to have the resources to pursue such cases in multiple fora.

Finally, the West Coast is trying to do its own thing on the environment (again). This time California, Oregon and Washington are “joining” British Columbia to coordinate environmental policy. The Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy is an attempt to deal with climate change at the sub-national level. While individual states in the US cannot pursue trade-related deals on their own, there is little in the constitution that prevents them from making these sorts of pacts. So it raises all sorts of interesting issues regarding sub-national attempts to create foreign policy (and international law) in the US.

Africa Notes: Yao-Min vs. the Chinese Government?

I recently posted about Yao-Min’s efforts to combat the ivory trade in Africa. It made for a great photo op.

However, as the NY Times story linked below notes, there may be reason to believe that offiicals in the Chinese government are creating the very economic conditions that make elephant poaching profitable. Can Yao-Min impact this?

A Story Exposes How the Chinese Government is Fueling Elephant Slaughter –

Noted: DNC vs. RNC on the environment

Last week, with the RNC Convention, Romney raised more than a few eyebrows with his comments on climate change:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family. (Business Insider)

He paused in there just enough to get a laugh from the audience about Obama’s audacity to care about things like climate change. And this did not go unnoticed. The Examiner called it a “bizarre… laugh line”. Uri Friedman wrote for Foreign Policy that this might be the “most controversial line” in the speech:

Critics swiftly derided the comment. “That climate change laugh line is going to be in every documentary from the latter half of the 21st century,” Matt Novak wrote on Twitter. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted that Romney’s “dismissiveness was appalling.”(Foreign Policy)

There clearly is a partisan divide on these issues, but as Fuentes-George notes on his blog, environmental issues have had Republican support in the past. Over at Legal Planet, there are some thoughtful posts by Matthew Kahn and Dan Farber about the partisan divide. Farber usefully shares his own attempt at making an objective side-by-side comparison as well.

One only needs to follow the blogs of the Sierra Club and similar environmental groups to discover very quickly who they think the best choice for President will be. Below is the infographic from a North Carolina chapter. Unfortunately, Obama himself seems to be less committed to doing something about climate change than he once was (energy biz). The most recent evidence of this may be his decision to OK drilling in the arctic (Reuters).wpid-energy-plan-2012-09-5-20-42.jpg

Course Notes – IL & GEP: Equity and climate change governance

My students in both classes have been focusing on climate change governance this week. One of the key themes that emerges is the question of equity. Does fairness matter here? (A question I won’t directly address because it is a take-home exam question!). What are the politics of equity and how does that translate into legal texts? As one student posted on my International Law blog:

I would argue that the concept of equity and how to measure it is the underlying issue.

A great source on these issues is Parks and Roberts’ 2008 article, “Inequality and the global climate regime.” Inequality, they note, is relevant to the interests of states who vary in their production of emissions and their vulnerability to climate change, and their capabilities for action on climate change issues (decision-making power in international regimes, for instance).

What are the prospects for collaboration on climate change given such inequalities? As one of my students noted, there are mechanisms for side payments to developing countries, to make participation in these agreements more attractive:

One of the many obstacles to international environmental protection is the economic interests of poorer nations.  In working to eliminate CFCs, the international community managed to solve this problem by creating a fund to help developing nations

Another student, considering the Montreal Protocol and its side payments to developing countries, seems to wonder whether the reasons for treaty ratification should matter to us:

What would the compliance rate have been had the Protocol not provided for these incentives or provided assistance for developing countries? While some states signed the treaty out of real concern for the environment, it seems most states only did so for financial reasons and to avoid conflict.

One of my students makes an even bolder and (perhaps) more controversial claim about the rights of the current generation in developing countries:

The environment is important and I believe that the international community should take action to protect it.  However ensuring the welfare of people alive today is far more important than ensuring the welfare of the world’s future population.

The problem of inequality has been–and will continue to be for some time–THE main issue is negotiations about climate change and economic governance (where my IL class will turn their attention to next).

Course Notes – IL: The Precautionary Principle

A couple of my students have engaged in a discussion on our course blog regarding the precautionary principle.

One student noted some of the potential advantages to principle:

In the U.S. (considering the increase in political chatter about domestic oil drilling) perhaps some of the uncertainties about byproducts from drilling fluids, fracking fluids, and accident/spill oil and their health effect on local populations and food stocks could be used to mitigate some of the “Drill baby, drill!” legislation being put forth by policymakers who are in the pocket of big oil?

Another student notes a potential disadvantaget:

At what point is there enough research to predict or think that something may pose a risk or may harm the environment?

Indeed, there are broad range of usages of the concept, something Manson does a decent job sorting out in his article “Formulating the precautionary principle”.

I shared in class the findings of Wiener and Rogers, who compare the use of the principle in the US and Europe. They find that part of the reason for our differences is our different legal systems, including the degree of protections for corporations from lawsuits, access to the courts for potential litigants, and relationships between regulatory bodies and corporations. Ultimately, the precautionary principle is about risk management, and it seems reasonable to assume that different political and legal systems have evolved different means to assess and address risks. For a defense of the precautionary principle see Sandin et al. in the Journal of Risk Research. For some of the challenges see, for instance: Bristow 2003, Peterson 2007. These all probably are not the best sources but are decent places to start.

My own take is that it is easy to take the precautionary principle to an unreasonable absolutist place. There are also problems in terms of the selective application of the principle. Consider the issue of food risks. We may be quick to apply the principle to the introduction of new foods such as those which are “genetically modified”. But there are many foods that we currently consume that have both known and unknown risks. Even coffee, which I drink gallons of every week, has plenty of scientific evidence against (and for!) it.

Course Notes – GEP: Big Dams!

China’s Three Gorges Dam may be a huge mistake, reports Business Insider. Criticisms of the project are by no means new, but the most recent statements that 100,000 people may still need to be moved in response to landslide risks around the dam have brought its downsides back into focus.

Meanwhile, China continues to be involved in major dam projects around the world. One such project is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project which is creating major conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt. The Economist recently called it the “jewel” of Ethiopia’s hydropower strategy, expected to generate 5250MW of energy when finished increasing electricity production in Ethiopia fivefold. This is more than twice Ghana’s current electricity production from hydropower. Here is Egypt’s Minister of Water, Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, interviewed just recently:

In short, it would lead to political, economic and social instability. Millions of people would go hungry. There would be water shortages everywhere. It’s huge (The National).

While Ethiopia is funding much of the project by issuing its own bonds, approximately $1.8 billion in turbines and electrical equipment are reportedly being financed by Chinese banks (The Economist).