I was on the Island this August. The haze that dimmed noon to dusk and that drove Air Quality off scale – the worst on the planet for a time – was a shock, as it must have been for many. I have been working on and around climate change for a good while, mostly in the global South, but this summer I had it in my face and in my lungs. The IPCC report on the danger of allowing temperature rise to exceed 1.5o and the narrowing path to avoid it confirms something I now know myself. People in the low latitudes where I work and in the high latitudes where Inuit have seen their sea ice shrink and sometimes collapse under them have already grasped that.
Here in the Netherlands the slackened jet stream that kept hot, dry air over western Canada and the US brought exceptional heat and a drought that turned vegetation brown. Groundwater levels have fallen sharply, allowing saltwater to intrude. The Rhine and the other rivers that made this land are historically low, impeding the barge traffic from Rotterdam that supplies much of Germany’s industry.
People are worried but it’s hard to know how much. The Dutch define themselves by resilience: they won much of the land from the sea and learned from the floods that swept in from seaward and from the rivers. In recent years, they’ve recognized that they have to give up some control: dikes and houses were pushed back, giving the rivers more room to flood. Rotterdam has been re-engineered to let the water come in if it wants to. Dealing with too little water is a new challenge but it’s hard to find anyone who thinks they won’t rise to it. Expertise on resilience has become a Dutch export.
In the South, resilience is now a major objective of development assistance: enabling people to better weather and recover from increasingly frequent extreme events. It’s something you can build a broad coalition around. Resilience is now built into the architecture of the US Agency for International Development. Avoiding the increasing costs of humanitarian assistance is a key motivation for them.
Resistance – pushing back against the forces that put us at risk of those extreme events, and some of us much more than others – is harder to rally the forces around. But resilience will only serve us so long when the psychological and natural resources on which it draws are undermined again and again.
Resistance has to come from many sources, in different forms. One, pioneered in this country, uses the courts. In 2015, the NGO Urgenda launched a civil action against the Dutch state. It claimed that the Government is knowingly exposing citizens to a danger it recognizes and can be held accountable for not taking sufficient action to prevent foreseeable harm.
The Government and Urgenda agreed about the danger of a rise of more than 2o. To avoid it, the Netherlands had already committed itself to reducing emissions by 25-40% by 2020 in relation to 1990 levels. Urgenda argued the Netherlands was on track to miss even the 25% target and needed more ambitious measures. The Government said that was a matter of policy which the Court had no business intruding into.
The District Court ruled in favour of Urgenda and the Hague Court of Appeal upheld the verdict in October. It relied not on the Civil Code argument of negligence but on the stronger one of the rights to life and to a secure family life guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights of which the Netherlands is a signatory.
Both Courts rejected the Government’s argument that the Dutch portion of global emissions is tiny. It’s an argument heard in Canada from opponents of the carbon tax. The courts ruled that the Government is obliged to control what is produced in the country, however small its contribution to the aggregate ills. The ruling helps overcome the inertia that a what-about-the-others defence leads to.
The Appeal Court’s decision was greeted with whoops and cheers. Its implications reach far beyond the Netherlands’ narrow borders. The right to life that the judgement invokes is recognized in many constitutions, including our Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 7). Section 15, which guarantees equality before and under the law, could be used to challenge the disproportionate effects of climate law and policy on particular groups. Our governments’ failure to curtail emissions that they know to be dangerous (Canada is much farther behind its pledges than the Netherlands) is already impacting indigenous people’s lives and livelihoods harder than others’ and younger people will feel the worsening effects more than the older.
A few days ago, the NGO ENJEU announced it was launching a class action suit on behalf of Quebec citizens under the age of 35. Acknowledging Urgenda, it challenges the Canadian government for insufficient action on climate change, invoking the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms which both guarantee rights to life and security; the Quebec Charter also establishes the right to live in a healthful environment.
The Dutch government is taking the case to the Supreme Court. It’s committed to executing the judgement but wants a declaration on a principle: “Can the judge take over the politician’s chair?” Urgenda wants the government to get on with governing and get out of court. But it’s rough weather out there, as they’re finding in France.
The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) are resisting Macron’s proposed fuel tax, a cornerstone of his transition écologique. It’s intended to change people’s behaviour, incentivize them, for example, to use public transport. But there’s not much of that in the small towns and villages where many of the Gilets Jaunes come from. It’s not just the tax: the anger that drives the movement is rooted in the long-perceived bias favouring the wealthy and corporations. A real transition has to build on and support people’s innovation, not just nudge them. The risk from policies that get it wrong is captured in a slogan painted on a Paris wall last Saturday: “La crise climatique est une guerre contre les pauvres”.