Ecocide – now to be made a crime, whatever it may be...


In France at the moment there is a major attempt to shift opinion and the law itself in favour of environmentalism. It has come about because President Macron had to try to pacify the 'Gilets Jaunes' protest movement. He wanted to persuade them that he was giving power back to the people. And so for 9 months now, a group of 150 people, randomly chosen by the government, has been discussing during long weekends what their country should do in order to play its part in the struggle against global warming by reducing their CO2 emissions by 40%.
'The Citizens Convention for the Climate' has now come to a decision on lots of measures which they consider are necessary or desirable. If Monsieur Macron keeps his promise, then they will be put to Parliament for the Deputies to come to a final conclusion, although when, I'm not sure.

I say that the members of the Citizens Convention were randomly selected, but that is not quite true. Their names were initially pulled out of a hat, but those chosen were able to refuse to serve and others were then chosen, again randomly, in their place. One may reasonably guess that those deciding to accept the call to set aside time for this sort of thing would be people of stronger opinions. So then they were at least in part self-selected. Whether that would have favoured the environmentalist case or the opposite can perhaps be inferred from the fact that only one of the 150 propositions which emerged from the discussion groups was voted down – the idea of having a 28 hour week with no reduction in salary.  All the rest were passed with either substantial majorities (60%+) or very substantial majorities.

Many are things which you would expect to see in a list of such measures. They include the insulation of houses with the aid of state finance and the promotion of the use of public transport.  They want the sale of polluting cars, those emitting more than 110 grams of CO2 per 100 km, banned by 2025 and the provision of zero interest loans for the purchase of non-polluting vehicles. Interestingly, though, only 60% voted for the reduction of the speed limit on motorways to 110 kph from the present 130kph. On the other hand, it has a significant effect as far as the Gilets Jaunes are concerned.  They don't like it one little bit.

The Citizens also want to prevent further airport expansion and limit the ‘noxious’ effects of flying by preventing internal flights except where the alternative would take longer than 4 hours. So then, short flights by electrically powered planes will never take off, at least in France.

They consider it vital to limit the consumption of energy by, for example, prohibiting the lighting of shop fronts at night, preventing restaurants from having heated terraces, and a prohibition on
using air conditioning to reduce the temperature in public buildings or private houses to below 25 °C. They also want them not to be heated in the winter to more than 19 °C.  If implemented, the sale of pullovers will undoubtedly have to go up, although quite how all this will be policed is difficult to say.

But they go rather further than I would have thought was justified by their brief. They want changes to the constitution to provide that the balance of rights it grants to citizens should include the preservation of the environment, which is “the common inheritance of mankind”.  They of course propose the inclusion of a requirement that the State should fight against climate change, but also a guarantee by the State of the ‘preservation of biodiversity and of the environment’.  Now I appreciate that biodiversity is good in the sense that there are many species out there which may harbour cures for our ills. Ensuring that species are not wiped out which are part of the food chain, not only for us, but for nature in general is also a good reason for promoting biodiversity.  So it all sounds very lovely, but I’m not sure how biodiversity helps with climate change or even how it can be defined in the context of a constitutional requirement.

Our understanding of the interaction of different species is continually changing and so our views as to what can and can't be done. Either we would have a requirement which was so heavily caveated as to be meaningless, or we would end up with a constitutional guarantee of biodiversity such that we could not even continue with our efforts to stamp out Covid 19, the smallpox virus or malaria.  After all, we only see these microbes as undesirable from our prejudiced human perspective. If they didn’t do us harm, then we would ignore them and so welcome them as part of the biodiversity called for to be part of the French constitution.  So if we're being asked to incorporate a requirement which may mean that we act against our own interests, then I would want convincing justification for it. I have the feeling, however, that it is rather some sort of absolutist new morality which we are being bounced into. Which then calls into question the whole idea of making biodiversity a constitutional requirement without saying to what extent and under what conditions.

But 93% of the Convention members then went on to vote in favour of a law “which penalizes the crime of ecocide within the framework of the 9 planetary limits, and which integrates the duty of vigilance and the crime of negligence, the implementation of which is guaranteed by the High Authority for Planetary Limits.” No, me neither.

What are these 'Planetary Limits'?
The limits alluded to include such important things as freshwater usage, ozone depletion, ocean acidification and, of course climate change. The idea has come from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, which is simply one of the departments of Stockholm University. I've no doubt they're trying to produce reliable scientific data for the making of judgements about how we should best proceed in managing the biosphere over the coming centuries.

But looking at what the Centre has to say, I’m afraid that although resilience sounds like a good idea, it doesn’t seem to be any more than a work in progress. Indeed, quite how any 'High Authority' will be able to make judgements which are globally accepted is very difficult to see. After all, we’re back to trying to computer model a highly complex system. In fact it doesn’t get much more complex than trying to model how the biosphere, the whole earth with its flora, fauna, oceans and atmosphere, works and interacts. Even the global effort at modelling just to predict global warming has not produced very precise results.  Now this is not my specialist subject, but I’m not entirely sure how any court could possibly adjudicate on such vague ideas.  But then I’m not French either and so perhaps their legal system can make sense of it all.

Good luck with that...

Paul Buckingham

23 June 2020

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