As climate change is becoming more prevalent in legal conversations around the world, a growing number of nations have begun subscribing to the idea of “environmental personhood.” The concept aims to grant natural resources various legal protections through new legislation and lawsuits. While this idea seems promising, it is being implemented on too small of a scale.
The legislative origins of environmental personhood can be dated back to 2008, when Ecuador became the first country to grant legal rights to nature in its constitution. Several other countries quickly followed suit, reforming their own constitutions to enshrine some form of legal protections to nature. In 2017, New Zealand took the movement one step further and granted rights to the Whanganui River following efforts from local tribes, as it is seen as a great “ancestor” of the indigenous people. In July 2019, Bangladesh became the first nation to designate all rivers the same legal status as humans. Despite tremendous strides by many nations to reduce emissions and pollution, their efforts are being undermined by the unacceptable and outdated agenda of one of the most powerful nations on earth — the United States.
Climate Action Tracker ranked US efforts as “critically insufficient” — the lowest rank that can be given. This is partially due to our blatant lack of commitment to the Paris Agreement, which 187 countries have ratified to take action against the climate crisis. However, early in his presidency, President Donald Trump vocalized his intent to have the US become the only nation to remove itself from the agreement. Since he has taken office, his administration has historically partnered with major oil companies and polluters to reverse much of the nation’s environmental progress. This includes filling his cabinet with several supporters of continued coal and oil usage.
As of September, the Trump administration had completed a total of 53 environmental protection rollbacks, with another 32 in progress. This extensive list included the revocation and relaxation of environmental regulations meant to prevent further damage to the world’s ecosystems and resources, many of which were put in place during the Obama presidency. The reversal of the environmental progress of the Obama era is a major cause for concern, as it has ended some of the guaranteed protection in the categories of urban planning, drilling, toxic substance safety, wildlife preservation and water pollution. Several of these rollbacks makes it easier for the federal government to frack, streamline pipelines, override the rights of indigenous people on their land, legally dump waste and pollute the habitats of thousands of species. One example of such a policy would make it easier for oil companies to frack in national parks.
This means that as the majority of the world attempts to reduce pollution and emissions to essentially save the planet, the USis sending a very clear message — we don’t care. Or, as exemplified by William Happer — Trump's deputy assistant for emerging technologies on the National Security Council — that his administration is skeptical that climate change is even happening. Happer has frequently been quoted defending fossil fuels as beneficial to us, advocating that we must stop demonizing them as pollutants. His most notable quote being, “The demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”
Unfortunately, this has only furthered America’s backward policy decisions regarding the climate, as Happer is leading the climate-review panel responsible for calling the findings of the National Climate Assessment into question.
Happer’s outrageous justifications for questioning the science behind the climate problem plaguing our planet are desperate attempts to distract the American people from the crisis at hand. Yet, some have not been easily deterred, as voters in Ohio are actively fighting to protect its natural resources despite the national changes being made in regards to climate policy. After holding a special election earlier this year, the city of Toledo passed legislation — titled the Lake Erie Bill of Rights — allowing its citizens to sue on behalf of the coveted waterway. While the city’s efforts signify gains in the fight for environmental protectionism, the country as a whole needs to band together to make the demanded changes to protect its natural resources and habitats.
The US is falling short of its moral duty to protect the environment through legal means. Climate change poses very real threats to future generations and their accessibility to natural resources. As a nation, we must hold our elected officials accountable to do their job in serving our nation, our planet and its resources.
Hailey Yowell is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.