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Criminalizing Ecocide Could Give Teeth to Easy-to-Evade Climate Targets

While most of the world’s countries are, for all intents and purposes, reneging on their promises to keep global warming below 1.5°C, individuals and organizations are fighting to hold such ecocidal inaction to account in criminal court. 

“The science is clear,” write activists Jojo Mehta and Julia Jackson in a recent guest post for The Guardian. “Without drastic action to limit temperature rise below 1.5°C, the Earth, and all life on it, including all human beings, will suffer devastating consequences.”

The authors note that only two countries—Morocco and the Gambia—are currently on track to meet their promises. Meanwhile, the world’s largest emitters are putting the planet on the path to 4.0°C. That kind of warming, they say, will lead to “mass famine, displacement, and extinction.” 

Indeed, the authors write, “the meaning of ecocide is fully encapsulated by its etymology,” with the word’s Greek roots literally translating to “killing our home.”

While acknowledging that “much of humanity feels hopeless,” Mehta and Jackson urge their readers to replace despair with support for a growing movement that would establish ecocide as a crime. Such a designation—currently “under consideration in a growing number of jurisdictions”—would have legal teeth, they add: “Whereas Paris lacks sufficient ambition, transparency, and accountability, the criminalization of ecocide would be an enforceable deterrent.” 

The proposed threshold of demonstrating “willful disregard for the consequences of actions” would implicate many global and corporate leaders who have been complicit in destructive practices like “deforesting the Amazon and Congo basins, drilling recklessly in the Arctic and the Niger delta, or permitting unsustainable palm oil plantations in southeast Asia.” 

The countries of Vanuatu, the Maldives, France, Finland, Belgium, and Spain have expressed support for campaigners calling for ecocide to be recognized as a crime. The EU has also voted to encourage member states to adopt the definition, while Pope Francis “was ahead of the game in November 2019 when he called for ecocide to become an international crime against peace,” the authors write.

Mehta and Jackson say laws against ecocide could do more than punish perpetrators. They could also help build understanding that the “pristine areas that ecocide targets—virgin forests, wetlands, and our oceans—are precisely the places that have value far beyond mere extractive industries”, including the provision of nature-based, pandemic-fighting pharmaceuticals.  

“True leaders in the public and private sector would much prefer ethical, sustainable, and long-term value creation that does not exploit nature or humanity,” they write. “By outlawing bad actors, we will empower many more good ones.”