After the COP21 Paris Climate Accord, what we need is an Int’l Climate Court

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The climate pact forged at Paris lacks real teeth and so in and of itself will not solve our carbon dioxide and methane problem. But it is still important, as a clear signal of a sea change in world public opinion. You can’t address a problem unless you recognize it exists.

The argument for moral suasion in international affairs should not be discounted. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 began as no more that a set of aspirations for human dignity. But it has been incorporated into international treaties and instruments, and is the background for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which has prosecuted war criminals such as Chad’s Hissen Habre. Many of its principles have also been incorporated into European Union human rights law. It has had a steady practical effect over the decades on positive law, despite starting as ideal law.

That is the way COP21 will work. The United Nations needs now to establish by treaty an International Climate Court where torts can be decided.

Likewise, climate wrongs need to be incorporated at the World Trade Organization. If dumping or unfair tariffs are not allowed, then burning coal should not be allowed. The harm of it affects other countries’ economies negatively.

Of course, pollution is its own punishment. The Chinese Communist Party is now the leading practical proponent of wind, solar and nuclear energy to replace coal. One of the reasons is that the air of Beijing and Shanghai is virtually unbreathable and there is starting to be urban unrest over this issue. That China is doing something so massive with regard to going green will have an effect throughout the world. Some solar panel industries are going to become the standard, moreover, and if they are Chinese rather than American then that market share will go China; that too will have a powerful effect.

One of the founders of modern climate science, James Hansen, has called COP21 a “fraud” because of the lack of teeth. He wants a fee assessed on all burning of fossil fuels, to make them clearly more expensive than renewables.

Such a fee is an excellent idea, but the US Congress won’t enact it and likely neither will the Russian parliament.

The more likely salvation will come from technological innovation such that renewables fall in price so low that even with installation and new-grid costs they are cheaper than continuing with coal. Solar panels have fallen incredibly in price in the past 3 years, and there is no reason to think that won’t continue. Greater efficiencies are also technically and economically feasible.

But, lawsuits can do some of the work Hansen wants done by a fee. An Int’l Climate Court would facilitate such suits. Some Pacific island populations will be made refugees by rising seas and more violent typhoons. Who will pay for their relocation and integration into a new society?

Possibly, the European Union’s parliament could put some teeth into the reduction of greenhouse gases.

You could not have sued the tobacco companies and won in the 1950s, but by the 1980s there was a sea change in opinion, including among judges and juries, and all of a sudden there were massive awards being given out to victims.

COP21, for all its flaws, is likely going to set off such a massive change in attitudes. And then we need to mobilize all the institutions of society to punish fossil fuel use and get people on renewables.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

New China TV: “Historic Paris climate change agreement adopted at COP21”

7 Responses

  1. Too often so-called free trade pacts reward nations that practice environmental degradation and worker exploitation. The WTO should have its rules changed so that trade policies do not reward environmental degradation, including, especially, the wanton use of fossil fuels. Nations should be allowed to impose tariffs on those products produced via the use of an inordinate amount of fossil fuels. This would be a good step forward. The first step is only that, laying the foundation for further development. Further important steps need to be taken within the next 5 years to set actual goals and impose real teeth into regulations on an international scale. People need to remember that the amount of CO2 in the air has increased 45% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. What nations have been talking about so far is a reduction in the amount of new, higher levels of CO2 introduced into the air, which does not solve the problem. Because CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for up to a century (methane for about 20 years as I recall), just maintaining the worldwide amount of CO2 and methane being released into the atmosphere will not go anywhere near solving the problem. At the present level of 400 ppm, just retaining that level will probably produce serious deleterious environmental affects within the next 20 years or so, so this level needs to be reduced. That will require a massive and coordinated international effort.

  2. I am afraid the powerful countries will ignore this if it comes in the way of their ‘growth’ just like we did with the Kyoto protocol. A climate court just like the ICC will be used only to go after the weak.
    This agreement is going to give the USA another tool to impose unilateral sanctions against countries for geopolitical reasons.

  3. Sir John Salmond

    . we do not have the TIME for renewables to replace coal by straight competition.Time is the KEY but overlooked factor in #climate

  4. Sir John Salmond

    . waited decades to act on #climate;now only drastic govt action on coal & demand by rich 1billion can avoid locking in catastrophe

  5. Bob Spencer

    Need a priority to build alternatives and do prevention. Court is after bad happens. Govt. is irrelevant now, so need org of doers

  6. What you are really talking about is an international shaming court, where green-house gas emissions violators can be brought to be shamed. To some degree, this will work. A country like Poland, with extensive infrastructure built around cheap coal, is loathe to abandon it, in part due to high stranding costs. A shaming court could be helpful in prodding such countries to move in a more productive direction. However, under a Republican President, the US would likely be in the docket, and the President would use the shaming court as political fodder for the conservative masses. In other words, it might well be used in a counterproductive manner by the eloquent politician.

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