Under Fire

It’s customary in many parts of the world to use the advent of the new year as an opportunity to reflect on the previous year.  For many of us, the beginning of 2020 invites reaching back ten years to see where we were and envision what might be possible in the coming decade.  At the individual, institutional, regional, national, and international levels, the reflection is frequently bittersweet – and 2019 is no exception. 

Of particular concern to citizens around the world has been the continued increase in deforestation, degradation, pollution, and natural disasters.  According to a 2015 study, scientists estimate that the global number of trees has decreased by nearly 50% since the start of human civilization.[1]  In order to meet the ambitious Paris Agreement goal to cap warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, greenhouse gas emissions would need to be eliminated by 2050.[2]  Current commitments and efforts have failed to curb emissions.  Indeed, last year saw the highest carbon emissions on record – for the third year in a row.[3]  According to a report from the UN Environment Program, global emissions must be reduced by approximately 8% each year for the next decade in order to meet the Paris Agreement goal.[4] 

Scientists are careful to contextualize emissions.  For example, while China is currently the greatest producer of emissions, the United States outpaces all other contributors cumulatively at 25%; the EU follows closely behind at 22%.  In addition, the U.S. remains the greatest contributor of greenhouse gases per capita at 16.6 tonnes.  (The world average is 4.8 tonnes.)[5]  The unprecedented flooding, heatwaves, habitat degradation, and water shortages disproportionately impact the most vulnerable populations.  The increase in number and severity of tropical storms, for example, have a greater impact on developing countries (1 in 79 are affected) as opposed to those affected by climate disasters in OECD countries (1 in 1500).[6]   

Records were shattered around the world in 2019.  Fires ravaged incomparable habitats across the Amazon,[7] Arctic/Siberia,[8] and Australia.[9]  Scientists credit human activity, which has led to “rising temperatures and shifts in precipitation patterns” which amplify “the risk of wildfires and prolong the season.”[10]  The impact on these habitats, wildlife, and communities is catastrophic.[11]  Conservative estimates in Australia suggest that over 1 billion animals have been affected by the fires, and critically endangered or threatened species may be wiped out entirely.[12]  For a continent as rich in diversity as Australia with unique, native species already under threat, these numbers are devastating.  To put the fires in perspective, 17.6 million acres (over 7 million hectares) burned in the Amazon over 12 months, 6.4 million (nearly 2,600,000 hectares) in the Arctic/Siberia, and over 25.5 million acres (over 10 million hectares) burned in Australia with two more months of the fire season to go.[13]      

The scale of the damage, cost, and risk for future deterioration has mobilized grassroots movements which are demanding an accelerated commitment from world leaders to address climate change aggressively.  According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were “10 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each” in the United States alone.[14]  This makes 2019 “the fifth consecutive year in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events” have occurred in the United States.[15]

Time Magazine recognized Greta Thunberg as its 2019 Person of the Year for her unwavering and unapologetic dedication to this effort.[16]  Her passionate address to the UN Climate Summit condemned world leaders:

“You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?  You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet, I’m one of the lucky ones.  People are suffering.  People are dying.  Entire ecosystems are collapsing.  We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.  How dare you!”

Calls to action may overwhelm citizens struggling to juggle personal and professional obligations.  Individuals and families are often able to have meaningful impacts on their environment by making small changes to their daily lives: composting,[17] reusable water bottles,[18] or going meatless one day a week,[19] have measurable impacts when multiplied across households.[20]  Critics of more controversial movements (e.g., paper straws[21]) are quick to remind concerned citizens that the greatest contributors to climate change are businesses.[22]  For example, a report based on publicly available emissions data determined that 100 companies are the source of over 70% of emissions.[23]  They invest billions of dollars to influence climate legislation and in the United States they have outspent environmental advocates 10 to 1.[24]  Globally, fossil fuel subsidies were estimated at $4.7 trillion in 2015.[25]  Absent government intervention, a 2019 IMF report suggests efficient pricing would have “lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent.”[26]  To meet the Paris Agreement commitments by 2050 will require decisive action at the national and international levels to regulate these industries meaningfully – and in some instances eliminate them altogether.  When possible, concerned voters should actively participate in the election process in their respective countries.  Polls in the United States are reporting that climate and the environment are growing in popularity, which may lead to more officials being elected into office that are committed to addressing these escalating issues.[27]  Some companies have responded independently by committing publicly to reducing emissions[28] and their overall investment practices.[29]  So long as lawmakers decline to require more sustainable business practices, these initiatives will remain elective and will continue to rely on the commitment of consumers, executive leadership, and/or shareholders. 

At the local and institutional level, concerned members of the academy are taking steps to recognize formally the alarming state of the earth’s deteriorating climate.  Notably, the University of Sydney Law School took the lead in December when the Board unanimously voted to declare a “climate emergency.”[30]  Professor Tim Stephens,[31] one of the speakers at the annual IALL course in Sydney, described

“the indispensable role of law and legal institutions in Australia and globally in implementing the Paris Agreement and achieving its objectives, and the vital contribution that law teachers and researchers are being called upon to make in developing effective and just responses to the climate emergency.”[32]

In his presentation to IALL attendees,[33] Professor Stephens highlighted the limits of current approaches under domestic and international environmental law.  A new generation of Australian environmental laws is required (e.g., national legislation in partnership with independent institutions to set standards, assessment, and enforcement mechanisms).[34]

IALL conference attendees came to Sydney from around the world and were welcomed to country[35] by Aunty Norma Ingram.[36]  She is a distinguished Wiradjuri woman born in Cowra NSW.  She urged attendees to care for country – and not to leave it to the Aboriginal peoples alone to engage in this critical work.  She welcomed attendees with a greeting: “yaama,” which translates into, “I see you.  You’re special.  You belong.”  In the wake of the fires in Australia, little coverage has been dedicated to the impact on native populations.  Lorena Allam, a descendant from the Gamilaraay and Yawalaraay nations described her experience:

“It’s a particular grief, to lose forever what connects you to a place in the landscape. Our ancestors felt it, our elders felt it, and now we are feeling it all over again as we watch how the mistreatment and neglect of our land and waters for generations…turn everything and everyone to ash…We know what it feels like to lose everything. And we know the rage of helplessness in the face of government indifference. Maybe this summer is the turning point, where our collective grief turns to action and we recognise the knowledge that First Nations people want to share, to make sure these horrors are never repeated.

Our precious country needs us.”[37]    

On a more modest scale, additional sources of inspiration and discussion include the original tools of our profession’s trade: books.  I’m currently participating in a book group and this year’s theme is “Climate Fiction” which includes seven books curated by Professor Bolton form Swarthmore College.  I welcome any interested colleagues to join remotely either by reading these books independently or organizing a local book group where you live.  For ambitious readers, discussion questions and historical information and context are provided online.[38] 

“The latest reports indicate that recent rains have helped bring a reprieve to firefighters and communities, but there are still 82 fires burning, of which 30 remain uncontained.[39]  One firefighter shared that if the rains continue, it “will be all of our Christmas, birthday, engagement, anniversary, wedding and graduation presents rolled into one.”[40]    

For anyone who would like to support our friends in Australia, donations are welcome to help firefighters,[41] wildlife,[42] and displaced residents[43] — including funds directed specifically towards supporting indigenous communities.[44]  These funds along with a renewed commitment to protect the environment will be needed to support this important work long after the fires have died down.       

Kristina J. Alayan
Howard University School of Law
Library Director & Assistant Professor of Law
Washington, D.C.

This Blog contains entries by members of the International Association of Law Libraries on issues germane to the Association’s areas of focus. Views expressed in an individual entry only represent the views of the author.

[1] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation/

[2] https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2019/12/03/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-will-hit-yet-another-record-high-this-year-experts-project/

[4] https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2019

[5] https://www.nature.com/immersive/d41586-019-02711-4/index.html

[6] https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/climate-change-and-vulnerable-societies/

[7] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/08/amazon-fires-cause-deforestation-graphic-map/

[8] https://public.wmo.int/en/media/news/unprecedented-wildfires-arctic

[9] https://www.npr.org/2020/01/03/793292951/australia-braces-as-frighteningly-quick-bushfires-advance-toward-sydney

[10] https://public.wmo.int/en/media/news/unprecedented-wildfires-arctic

[11] https://time.com/longform/australia-bushfires-photos/; ; https://time.com/longform/australia-bushfires-photos/;

[12] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/billion-animals-australia-fires_n_5e13be43e4b0843d361778a6;  https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/01/australias-fires-have-been-devastating-for-wildlife/604837/

[13] https://www.insider.com/australia-fires-burned-twice-land-area-as-2019-amazon-fires-2020-1.

[14] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/

[15] https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/

[16] https://time.com/person-of-the-year-2019-greta-thunberg/

[17] https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/exploring-green/fight-climate-change-with-compost/

[18] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/08/plastic-bottles/

[19] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-09-22/meatless-mondays-small-diet-changes-have-big-climate-effects; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth

[20] The 52 Climate Actions partnership developed after the International Permaculture Convergence declaration to the Paris Climate Conference and includes 52 changes – one for each week of the year – that individuals can make (https://www.52climateactions.com/). 

[21] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/paper-straws-wont-stop-climate-change/596302/

[22] https://harvardpolitics.com/united-states/climate-change-responsibility/; https://templatelab.com/carbon-majors-report/

[23] https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/new-report-shows-just-100-companies-are-source-of-over-70-of-emissions

[24] https://e360.yale.edu/digest/fossil-fuel-interests-have-outspent-environmental-advocates-101-on-climate-lobbying

[25] https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2019/05/02/Global-Fossil-Fuel-Subsidies-Remain-Large-An-Update-Based-on-Country-Level-Estimates-46509

[26] https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2019/05/02/Global-Fossil-Fuel-Subsidies-Remain-Large-An-Update-Based-on-Country-Level-Estimates-46509

[27] https://www.environmentalvoter.org/sites/default/files/documents/report-exploration-us-voting-behavior-attitudes.pdf

[28] https://www.npr.org/2020/01/16/796758230/microsoft-pledges-to-remove-from-the-atmosphere-all-the-carbon-its-ever-emitted

[29] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/14/business/dealbook/larry-fink-blackrock-climate-change.html

[30] https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2019/12/11/university-of-sydney-law-school-declares-climate-emergency.html

[31] https://sydney.edu.au/law/about/our-people/academic-staff/tim-stephens.html

[32] https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2019/12/11/university-of-sydney-law-school-declares-climate-emergency.html

[33] https://fcilsis.wordpress.com/2020/01/09/iall-2019-recap-international-environmental-law-in-australia/

[34] http://iall.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/STEPHENS2019IALLPresentation.pdf

[35] http://www.willingconsultancy.com.au/welcome-to-country/

[36] http://www.willingconsultancy.com.au/our-team/

[37] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/06/for-first-nations-people-the-bushfires-bring-a-particular-grief-burning-what-makes-us-who-we-are

[38] https://swarthmorebookgroup.wordpress.com/2019/06/08/reading-list-for-2019-2020-climate-fiction/

[39] https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/16/australia/australia-weather-intl-hnk/index.html

[40] https://twitter.com/NSWRFS/status/1216501456108343296

[41] The states hardest hit by the fires are New South Wales (https://quickweb.westpac.com.au/OnlinePaymentServlet?cd_community=NSWRFS&cd_currency=AUD&cd_supplier_business=DONATIONS&action=EnterDetails) and Victoria (https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/donate1).  NSW has also created a page to donate directly to the families of volunteer firefighters who died during this fire season (https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/news-and-media/general-news/featured/support-for-firefighter-families).  Please note these links are not comprehensive and are only intended to direct readers to selected organizations.  There are many others.

[42] Vets Beyond Borders deploys volunteer veterinarians where they are needed most around the world, this link will dedicate funds to efforts related to the Australian Bushfire Crisis (https://www.vetsbeyondborders.org/donate-to-charity/), WIRES (https://www.wires.org.au/) is a NSW-based rescue, and Animal Rescue Craft Guild is coordinating international efforts to knit and crochet protective pouches and blankets for animals displaced by the fires (https://www.facebook.com/groups/arfsncrafts/).  Please note these links are not comprehensive and are only intended to direct readers to selected organizations.  There are many others.

[43] The Australian Red Cross is providing logistical support at the local level (https://www.redcross.org.au/campaigns/disaster-relief-and-recovery-donate).  Please note this link is not comprehensive and are only intended to direct readers to selected organizations.  There are many others.

[44] This GoFundMe effort (https://au.gofundme.com/f/fire-relief-fund-for-first-nations-communities) is being led by Neil Morris, a Yorta Yorta man.  There appear to be limited, targeted efforts to address the needs of the First Nations peoples at this time.