IN 2007, six climate change activists scaled the smokestack of a coal-fired power station in the United Kingdom and painted over its walls. A suit for criminal trespass was filed against them. Their defense? They were preventing further pollution to the environment caused by the station.
This sounds like a losing case for the activists, but on January 27, 2014, Armin Rosencranz—lawyer, political scientist, and climate and energy law professor at Stanford University—informed the Ateneo Professional Schools auditorium filled with law students that in fact, the activists won, in a case filed by Kingsnorth Plant versus Greenpeace, decided in 2008 by a jury. The case is now an important precedent against companies whose practices have a degrading effect on the environment.
The case is just one of the many examples that Rosencranz pointed out to help aspiring legal and policy workers in pursuing their environmental advocacies. Rosencranz, known for his work in climate change and energy policy, visited the Law School last January to share and discuss how legal theory and policy interact in searching for solutions to the pressing problem of global warming and climate change.
He started his lecture by making a bold remark about the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which upheld the sovereignty of the nation-State: “Three hundred years later, and we’re still operating under the same framework,” he says, referring to assertions of State sovereignty by China and the United States, and how these subvert efforts for international cooperation in solving environmental problems.
“China has an obsession with sovereignty,” he adds. In the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, for example, Rosencranz related how China’s refusal to agree to a proposal, which involved other States exercising supervisory powers over it, delayed the conference until a compromise was met changing the supervisory powers to mere consultative powers. He also shared how the U.S. refuses to allow an international body to manage a worldwide nuclear facility, by again invoking the sovereignty argument.
This derails efforts to combat a problem whose cause, and remedy, is shared by all citizens and nations in the globe, according to Rosencranz.
Is the remedy then found in litigation? For Rosencranz, climate change litigation has its successes, but also its weaknesses. Citizens of a sinking country like Maldives, for example, will find it hard to find a defendant to sue for rising sea levels causing the losses of their homes and livelihood. “They will have to go to the domestic courts of every country to find someone to sue,” he says. Yet hope can be found in related cases, as in December 2013, Rosencranz shares, Ecuadorian indigenous communities wronged by Chevron, an oil company, were able to secure a court ruling in Canada giving them a right to pursue Chevron’s assets in that country.
Recognizing that litigation, however, has its limits, Rosencranz emphasizes that the key to any attempt to curb harmful emissions (or any other global environmental problem, for that matter) is international management—even if as of the present, only two international organizations, according to him, make any kind of impact on States: the European Union and the World Trade Organization. “These organizations make a difference, but we need to get people to find a stake,” he says. “Everyone must be alarmed.”