Climate Wrongs and Climate Rights

I’m guessing I’m not alone in having our legal system here in America be top of mind this week as the Supreme Court prepares to likely overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s a devastating blow to reproductive rights and public health more generally, and on top of that, this upcoming decision and the way it was leaked has undermined the legitimacy of the courts and casts doubt on the continued existence of past decisions. I’d encourage everyone to read up on the latest Roe v. Wade analyses–there are lots of great ones out there and I’m no expert on the issue–but I’d also like to specifically recommend a post by Hot Take’s Amy Westervelt on the intersection of climate and Roe v. Wade

Speaking of court cases, I got to watch Youth v. Gov on Netflix this weekend, and all I really have to say is that everyone should watch it. Most of you have probably read about it before as Lucy highlighted it in a Climate Culture post recently, but it’s good enough that I want to mention it here too. It’s a stunning condemnation of our government’s actions with regards to the fossil fuel industry over the past several decades and it will make your blood boil, but the story of 21 young Americans taking on the injustices perpetrated by their government is at least equally inspiring.

Anyways, all this legal business got me thinking about rights. The framework of rights is not new to the climate world, though it did take until 2021 for the UN to officially pass a resolution declaring it a human right to have access to “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” (Read more on human rights and climate change here.) So, it’s pretty well-established that people alive today have the right to a livable climate, but the nature of climate change raises some bigger questions. Because the impacts of our current actions stretch so far into the future, how should we be considering the rights of future human beings on this planet? And because the impacts of climate change are so wide-ranging across the biosphere, how should we be considering the rights of non-humans? What would these “new” sets of rights look like? Who should speak for not-yet-born humans or the plants, animals, fungi, et al? What would the implications of recognizing those rights be? 

A lot of big questions I (and most others) don’t have the answer to. Behind all these questions about rights, however, is the bare and urgent need to treat each other and the world more generally with a lot more respect. After all, what a framework of rights proposes to do is codify sets of values and morals, and here in the US, citizens and the government can then use the court systems to try to make reality align more closely with our collective vision of justice. This is by no means a perfect system (no need to look further than today’s news), but historically, fighting to get rights recognized has been a powerful tool in progressing towards a more just society. 

The potential energy contained in rights-based action has not been lost on the environmental and climate community, and I want to highlight a couple of recent exciting cases in particular: “How rights of nature and wild rice could stop a pipeline” in Grist and “A Lake in Florida Suing to Protect Itself” in The New Yorker.  Plus: “The Rights of Future Generations, A New Legal Humanism.” 

Feeling inspired to leverage our collective right to a livable climate, now and in the future? Check out you can take action with the Youth v. Gov community or connect with the non-profit For the Generations to learn how you can support campaigns to get environmental rights added to state constitutions around the country. Sierra Club has a page dedicated to the campaign in Maryland you can check out here. Or, a quick google search with your state and “environmental human rights” will also probably get you on the right track. 

Thanks for reading!

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