Environmental regulation and international accountability

13 July 2020

Now more than ever, we need to reinvigorate our pursuit of the UN sustainable development goals, invest in green transitions, and maintain diplomatic momentum to push for low carbon economies

In an ever more internally focussed, nationalistic and individualist world, the challenge to find global solutions is greater than ever. The COVID-19 crisis is but a drop in a rapidly acidifying ocean compared to the ramifications we will face if we fail to make use of the crucial narrowing window we have to mitigate the deleterious effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Emissions reduction targets have been repeatedly missed, documents referring to climate change redacted, environmental fines ignored as reported by the BBC on the top UK polluters recidivating and many companies responsible for unprecedented levels of destruction do not even have environmental policy frameworks. As a result, 250,000 people a year as a very conservative estimate are dying from climate change. Meanwhile, food security and safe drinking water have been compromised, conflict has increased, and extreme weather events and ensuing epidemics have killed hundreds of thousands.

For example, the cholera outbreak which followed Cyclone Idai in Mozambique in 2019. Rising global temperatures have expanded mosquito habitats, exposing more people to diseases for which they are vectors, including dengue, chikungunya and zika in Australia. When these elements converge, they cause ecological cascade effects and co-extinctions. We have also lost indefensible amounts of biodiversity, with the species extinction rate at 100-1,000 times faster than times without the presence of humans. This is only going to increase, and is likely to precipitate the sixth mass extinction event.

Demonstrating the intersectionality of climate change UN Environment found that “nearly one quarter of all deaths globally in 2012 could be attributed to modifiable environmental risks, with a disproportionately high amount occurring in populations in developing countries”. This makes climate change a human rights issue; from a legal perspective, “a right to a healthy environment in various formulations is recognized by the constitutions of 118 nations around the world”.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently stated that humanity now has eleven years left to avoid the worst effects of climate change, and tropical deforestation alone is currently responsible for around 8% of the world’s annual emissions. In order to achieve real progress on the climate crisis and to realistically prevent as much damage as possible within the tiny window we have, there are five concrete policies that progressives need to implement.

1.The Urgent Need to Recognise and Record: To Extend Life, We Must Understand Death

The first issue is the existence of a data gap. As with any problem, accurate information needs to be collated in order to generate applicable decisions which can tackle it.

For example, during the pandemic, predictive modelling is continuously being used to determine government policy on lockdowns. This is based on death certificates acknowledging Covid-19 infections, which enable scientists to track infection hotspots and analyse trajectories. However, the lack of identification of climate change as a cause (even if indirect) on death certificates seriously hinders the ability to understand the scope of mortality rates and to make informed decisions. A far more holistic approach needs to be taken when looking at causes of death, and non-biomedical causes such as climate change must be not only recognised, but recorded.

2.From Anonymity to Accountability: Identification Is Key

Secondly, companies which fund projects that significantly contribute to the climate crisis, and therefore to global deaths, must be legally required to identify individuals responsible for their projects which have significantly harmed the environment (and consequently led to avoidable deaths). Anonymity is one of the strongest facilitators of crime, and the greatest defence against an invisible enemy is to label it. Recently, I chaired a discussion between two key figures in the UK climate movement: Luke Pollard MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, and Jo Blackman, Labour councillor for Redbridge and Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy for Global Witness. Global Witness is a high-profile international NGO which exposes fossil fuel funding trails and cases of illegal deforestation. We discussed the future of environment policy, the future and role of the UK’s DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and global decarbonisation efforts. I posed questions predominantly about how to establish accountability for companies and individuals that significantly contribute to the climate crisis.

As an example , I asked about Crispin Odey, one of the largest Conservative party donors who has invested more than 140 million GBP / 170 million USD into SLC Agricola, one of Brazil’s most damaging agribusinesses that has been deemed responsible for widespread deforestation of the Amazon, despite receiving several environmental fines from national governments. In response, Jo Blackman noted the fact that when Global Witness contacted Mr. Odey about the fines and the destruction he was funding, in a textbook demonstration of cognitive dissonance, he denied causing any harm and made clear that the fines were inconsequential.

In terms of holding these people accountable, suggestions from both speakers were similar. Individual people must be named and their reputations put on the line when they decide to profit from ecological devastation. Just as money launderers, thieves, drug traffickers, and criminals in every category are exposed and put on trial, often with their identities widely reported in the media and throughout their communities, those who choose to act as accelerants to, rather than trying to ameliorate a phenomenon which has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives must also be made known. Their reputations need to be at stake and legal frameworks must be established where infractions have clear consequences without loopholes.

3.The War on Wording; Reframe to Redress 

“Not only can framing have an impact on how an issue is perceived but on whether and how policy is made on the issue.”

– Hong Vu, assistant professor of journalism at University of Kansas

There is also a significant case to be made for a centralised international political effort to push back against three key elements within media: firstly, destructive media framing, secondly, fake news and thirdly, lack of reporting. The public isn’t going to feel a sense of crisis if changing weather patterns or temperature increases as a result of climate change are reported as ‘hottest summer on record’, rather than as ‘heat deaths set to rise as temperatures soar’. If news outlets are not covering the issue with commensurate urgency, the possibility of a change in paradigm rapidly retreats.

Science denialism also needs to be tackled with force. Climate change conspiracy theorists need to have their platforms taken away and donations to them by fossil fuel companies made sanctionable. For example, Amazon still sells books such as ‘The Global Warming Hoax’ by Larry Bell, and YouTube refuses to take down videos by deniers such as Senator James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, who received some 2 million USD/ 1.8 million GBP in political fossil fuel donations 11 from corporations such as ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers in an effort to block any substantial government initiatives which could contribute to a green energy transition.

When denial means danger to public health and the obstruction of policy changes means deaths in the hundreds of thousands, not to mention species extinctions, the consequences for encouragement of that denial needs to reflect the gravity of its effects. Just as the glorification of violence is a prosecutable offence, so must there be punitive measures for those who actively contribute to this narrative.

Some outlets barely cover the issue at all; major American broadcast networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox spent just 142 minutes covering climate change last year, according to the progressive Media Matters group. 10  Comparably, the pandemic has been covered incessantly by the media around the globe, with live international death tolls, constant briefings and condemnations of lockdown flouters. The exigency of the climate crisis, and those actively exacerbating it needs to be covered as the emergency it is. Challenges need to be brought against justifications for lack of reporting to one of the greatest threats to humankind.

Chris Hayes, editor for The Nation tweeted “every single time we’ve covered [climate change] it’s been a palpable ratings killer. So the incentives are not great” and yet television has forgotten its Paul Revere responsibilities – it has an obligation to air programmes that are in the public interest, irrespective of rating performances. Users responded noting the rating quashing argument was the reverse of that used during the 2016 US presidential primary campaign, when corporate media justified gifting Donald Trump 5 billion USD/ 4.4 million GBP in free air time because ‘it was good for ratings’. Media outlets need to be called out for avoiding the issue or for pandering to pro-fossil fuel agendas and the standard needs to be raised in terms of both the volume and the quality of coverage.

4: Counteracting Greenwashing

Countries need to establish clear sanctions to counteract greenwashing, whereby companies disseminate disinformation to present an environmentally responsible image of themselves whilst continuing environmentally destructive business as usual behind a green veneer. For example, British oil company BP (British Petroleum) launched a multimillion pound global advertising campaign, its largest in a decade, to mislead customers into thinking that it was transitioning to renewable energy when in fact, more than 96 percent of its annual capital expenditure is still on oil and gas.

ExxonMobil has also just dismissed a shareholder proposal calling for the company to disclose how it plans to align its business with the Paris Agreement climate targets, going so far as to call the proposed report ‘materially misleading’. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations criminalises false advertising, including deceptive messages and leaving out important information. Greenwashing is the epitome of what this outlaws, and should be met with penalisation, as well as all government support for companies doing so rescinded. Green claims must be independently verified for companies to be able to make them, and to receive environmental certification.

5: Destruction to Equal Divestment

In France, there is a law that if one walks past someone in grave danger and distress but does nothing to assist them, one can be charged as if one was an accomplice to a crime. The proverb ’The standard you walk past is the standard you accept’ applies here. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that emissions from fossil fuels are the dominant cause of global warming, to the tune of 71% of global emissions. Over half of those emissions since human induced climate change was officially recognised can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producing entities.18 

Some of the biggest names in global finance are far more than accomplices; they are fully complicit in environmental destruction. Well-known companies such as Barclays, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Santander, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley are funding companies which are either directly or indirectly causing deforestation in some of the largest rainforests in the world. The average person’s nest egg is more than likely to be contributing to the destruction of the world’s most precious ecosystems, due to a systemic failure of accountability in the financial system.

At our event, Luke Pollard MP remarked that even parliamentary pension funds have shares in companies involved in ecocide, showing just how engangled the investment webs are. As asserted by Global Witness, the ‘financial sector must take responsibility for the impact of their financing and investments on forests and the climate’. Government subsidies must be pulled from environmentally destructive companies that fail to meaningfully strike for a green transition. Divestment campaigns need to target guilty banks and corporations, and shareholder activism needs to become the next consumer protest. Climate action is no longer confined to the direction given by policy makers – it is now a social movement, commanded by both economic and ethical imperatives.Investors in fossil fuel companies carry influence over one fifth of industrial greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Thus, divestment campaigns can be a potent force. The Tate Modern recently severed ties after 26 years with BP over climate protests and now feature climate activists in its exhibitions. Direct action group Extinction Rebellion have now set their sights on Barclays, who recently invested £85 billion in fossil fuels, making it Europe’s biggest benefactor to environmentally destructive companies.17 Awareness not only needs to be raised in terms of financial institutions dodging responsibility, but also of who the top climate criminals are, including those directly committing ecocide on an international level.

Next Steps: Rejecting ‘Business As Normal’

Business as normal just does not cut it anymore. Corporations investing in projects that ultimately kill hundreds of thousands of people and wipe out whole species is not normal. We need a vastly different, new normal. Progressives can take practical steps to tackle the devastating consequences of the climate emergency, including changing death certification to include climate change as a cause, and comparing death data against environmental data to facilitate risk and impact assessments.

To establish transparency, disclosure of environment affecting projects in line with the Financial Stability Board’s (FSB) Taskforce for Climate-Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) or a similar framework must be made mandatory, and specific people held responsible for specific projects. Due diligence obligations must be enacted for companies financing any kind of ecological destruction to account for all risks involved, and multilateral cooperation facilitated to penalise countries with bases in the countries involved which continue to significantly harm the environment.

It is vital that definitive destruction thresholds over which sanctions apply be established, and those sanctions be made proportionate to company profits to effectively deter violations. A human rights charity would not allow a serial human rights abuser to sit on their board of trustees, as it would obviously be contradictory, inappropriate and completely counterproductive. In the same vein, fossil fuel companies cannot be allowed a seat at the table at international climate summits such as the Paris Agreement any longer, as sponsorship deals stymie the progress of environmental agendas.

The pandemic is indisputably a tragedy that has brought about huge suffering,  economic devastation and the destabilisation of   international development. However, it may inadvertently pave the way for a schema of substantially more sustainable living, and coronavirus can in fact be a catalyst for long-term change if we act decisively.

Now more than ever, we need to reinvigorate our pursuit of the UN sustainable development goals, invest in green transitions rather than resuscitating the fossil fuel industry, and maintain diplomatic momentum to push for low carbon economies. Organisations who commit ecocide must be held to account, individuals identified, and deaths recorded accurately to reflect the risk climate change poses. Clear frameworks for disclosure, due diligence, and thresholds above which sanctions apply need to be established and recourse to accountability must be created..

The media must play its role by comprehensively covering the issues of climate change, and by exposing aspects such as payments by multinational corporation to climate change deniers and raising awareness of key figures perpetuating ecological destruction. As economies rebuild, inviolable conditions must be attached to government support packages, as recommended by the Young Fabians Environment Network to the Labour National Policy Forum Consultation.There is an increased impetus for global cooperation as countries emerge from the pandemic and they must not waste the opportunity to act collaboratively by investing in sustainable transformations. Let’s make a new, sustainable ‘business as usual’ where we put ourselves, and our planet first.