Earth Jurisprudence: Towards Achieving Climate Justice
It is hard to avoid feeling despair, frustration, and helplessness when confronted with the imminent threat of climate change. Many of us have grown up amid concerns of rising sea levels, mass species extinctions, and steadily increasing CO2 levels. Now, with the publication of many scientific reports detailing Earth’s rapid deterioration, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the frightening realities of climate change. However, there is a glimmer of hope found in Earth jurisprudence; a modern theory of law which asserts that nature itself has the legal right to exist, thrive, and evolve.
There is clearly a global consensus that we need to fundamentally change our attitudes towards climate change, as evidenced by the astounding 195 countries which have agreed to take steps to address rising temperatures under the Paris Climate Agreement. However, despite such international efforts and several decades worth of domestic laws aimed at environmental protection, existing measures have largely lacked the enforceability needed to effectively mitigate climate change. Just last year, it was reported that climate change had caused the rapid melting of Arctic glaciers, severe droughts in Brazil, and uncontrollable fires across Australia and the United States.
Ultimately, our existing laws have done little to address our legal system’s human-centred view that the environment is merely an item of property for us humans to own and exploit for our own benefit. Consequently, existing laws perpetuate the exploitation and destruction of the Earth, as environmental considerations are subordinated to the dominant economic or personal interests of humans and corporations.
Earth jurisprudence attempts to challenge this presumption of human supremacy over nature by recognising that nature has a set of enforceable legal rights. The theory recognises that humans are dependent on a flourishing natural environment for our own survival. We depend upon free-flowing rivers for water, plants and trees for oxygen, and plants and animals for food. However, our current legal system fails to reflect this co-dependency. Instead, we prioritise short-term economic endeavours such as mining and construction, often at the expense of the environment.
The concept of recognising and enforcing the legal rights of nature first saw practical application in 2009, when a city in Washington passed world-first legislation acknowledging the rights of rivers to flow and of ecosystems to exist and flourish. Unfortunately, this attempt to confer enforceable legal rights upon nature was later rejected by the Washington Supreme Court, as it exceeded the legal scope of local authority. However, a few years later, the Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first natural landmark to obtain legal personhood, confirming that the concept of nature rights can apply in practice. The Whanganui River now has the same legal rights and responsibilities as a person, meaning that anyone who infringes upon the ‘health and wellbeing’ of the river can be held legally accountable.
The notion that soils, rivers, oceans, and ecosystems should have legal status clearly represents a step towards holding people and businesses accountable for causing environmental detriment. Where nature is acknowledged as having legal rights or even legal personhood, it becomes far easier to prevent and punish harmful behaviour that degrades our natural environment. In the context of climate change, Earth jurisprudence could provide an additional incentive for businesses and countries to lower greenhouse gas emissions so as to preclude their liability for the legal consequences of infringing upon the legal rights of nature.
Ultimately, legal recognition of the rights of nature might be the ‘legal revolution’ needed to challenge our prioritisation of short-term economic gain over environmental sustainability, which has been a major hindrance to our efforts to combat climate change thus far.