ASAP President Thomas Pogge’s short video on climate change and the Oslo Principles is now available below. The video uses graphics and explanations to argue that governments have a duty to avert the world’s looming climate catastrophe. Special thanks to Hudson Brown who created the animation. More information on the Oslo Principles is available here.
In the run-up to the grand climate meeting in Paris this December, countries are publishing their commitments. Mexico earned much praise for proposing to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 22% by 2030. But this exemplary reduction is relative to what Mexico might otherwise have emitted in 2030 – and constitutes a substantial increase over its 2013 emissions. Even on a per-capita basis, Mexico is proposing merely to keep its GHG emissions flat at 5.9 tons of CO2 equivalent.
Mexico’s celebrated proposal foreshadows that governmental commitments will be nowhere near sufficient to keep the rise of the global average surface temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. It is the scientists’ consensus that respecting this limit is necessary to avert a climate catastrophe and requires keeping humanity’s cumulative post-2011 CO2 emissions below 1 trillion tons for a 2/3 probability of staying below the 2°C threshold (IPCC Synthesis Report, Table 2.2, page 64). If humanity emits GHG at Mexico’s rate of 5.9 tons per person until 2030, we will have used up 87% of our remaining CO2 budget by then.
A severely worsening climate would inflict immense harms upon poor and vulnerable populations: through extreme weather events, flooding of coastal areas, scarcity of food and water, spreading disease vectors and violent struggles over diminishing natural resources. Predictably, these harms will jeopardize human rights by causing millions of premature deaths and unimaginable deprivations. Given this prospect, is it permissible to continue emitting CO2 at Mexico’s rate – or at the even higher rates of the EU or US (currently 7 and 16 tons per capita, respectively)?
Morally, the answer is clear; it would be wrong to risk such catastrophic harms. But many assume that states are legally free to continue in their polluting ways unless and until they have contracted otherwise. Exactly this assumption has now been challenged by an international group of eminent jurists in their Oslo Principles, supported by an elaborate legal commentary. ASAP President Thomas Pogge helped convene the group of legal experts who wrote the principles.
The essence of the Oslo Principles can be conveyed in three steps. First, according to the best joint interpretation of international law, human rights law, national environmental law and tort law, it would be unlawful knowingly to inflict the harms that a large majority of climate scientists predict may well result from exceeding the 2°C threshold.
Second, honouring the precautionary principle, we must not proceed with any course of action if a substantial proportion of climate scientists judge it to court a serious risk of a catastrophic outcome. It is not legally permissible to subject the human rights of billions of present and future persons to a game of Russian roulette.
Third, states are legally required collectively to restrain emissions so as to stay below the 2°C threshold. They can meet this requirement through a sufficiently strong and effective agreement. Failing that, each is legally required – regardless of what the others do – to do its fair share toward meeting the collective legal obligation. Doing one’s fair share involves reaching a glide path that takes per capita CO2 emissions down from the global average of about 5 tons today to about 1 ton in 2050 through steady reductions of about 4.5% each year. There is no good reason why any national population should be entitled to a more favorable glide path than others.
According to the Oslo Principles, countries above the required glide path are legally required to take all reasonable measures to reach it as quickly as possible and, insofar as they cannot reach it immediately, must take compensating action by funding emissions reductions in poorer countries so as to offset their own excess. Countries below the glide path must take all emissions-lowering measures whose net costs are either nil or covered by others. The poorer countries need energy for their development, of course. But this should be green energy that adds at most minimally to atmospheric greenhouse gases.
A climate catastrophe is threatening our planet. Each country can do its fair share toward reducing humanity’s carbon emissions and has a legal obligation to do so. By explicating and enforcing this legal obligation, legal scholars and national and international courts can play a crucial role in averting one of the largest systematic human rights violations in human history.
The ASAP-supported project Global Climate Change Week (GCCW) was launched on May 26. GCCW is a new initiative designed to encourage academics in all disciplines and countries to engage with their students and communities on climate change action and solutions. During GCCW (to be held this year on October 19-25) academics will alter their programs to coordinate their teaching on some aspect of climate change. They will also organize various other activities focused on awareness-raising, behavior change and political transformation in relation to climate policy, with the participation of NGOs, the community and not-for-profit sector.
For more details see the GCCW website. One of its features is a map that will show which academics around the world are taking part and (if appropriate) what they are planning to do. The map becomes populated when academics fill in the ‘register your interest’ (or ‘register an activity’) form on the right-hand side of every page. So if you think you would like to participate, do please fill the form in.
And do please help us to spread the word about GCCW. Climate change is an increasingly important poverty issue in part because the world’s poor are especially vulnerable to its effects. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report says, ‘Climate change impacts are expected to exacerbate poverty in most developing countries and create new poverty pockets in countries with increasing inequality, in both developed and developing countries’ (p. 73).
If you have any questions or suggestions concerning GCCW, please contact Keith Horton.
An article in a leading UK newspaper, The Guardian, features ASAP’s call for universities to withdraw any endowment funds invested in fossil fuel companies.
Here is the ASAP statement in full:
In light of the urgency of climate change, we, the Directors and members of Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP), strongly support the growing movement to divest university endowments from fossil fuel companies. We applaud the recent divestment commitments made by Stanford University, the New School, University of Glasgow, Syracuse University, and 23 other universities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. We urge all other universities to follow their lead.
Time is running out. The Cop 21 Summit in Paris in December of this year is probably our last chance to secure binding and meaningful emission reductions. We must convey the strongest possible message ahead of this summit, and the divestment movement offers a highly promising opportunity to do so.
The scientific community agrees that global warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would constitute “dangerous climate change” as defined by the UNFCCC, with wide-reaching negative impacts on human and natural systems. In order to have a ⅔ chance of remaining below this threshold, we cannot emit more than 1,000 gigatonnes of CO2 from 2011 on. At our present rate, we will burn through this carbon budget in only 25 years. And if we burn all currently known and recoverable fossil fuel reserves – as the fossil fuel industry plans – we will produce over 3,670 gigatonnes of CO2. That’s nearly 4 times the allowable budget.
The conclusion is strikingly clear: in the absence of decisive action, we are on track for catastrophic climate change. On our present course, climate change will wipe out crucial gains in development and poverty reduction in the global South, and will trigger food shortages, conflict, epidemic disease, and mass displacement. According the IPCC, these trends will “exacerbate multidimensional poverty” and “create new poverty pockets” in low- and middle-income countries. The current response by the international community is inadequate to prevent this from happening.
Publicly listed and investor-owned fossil fuel companies hold a significant proportion of existing fossil fuel reserves – more than enough to surpass the global emissions budget. Their business model depends on selling and burning these reserves, and then finding yet more reserves to sell and burn. By investing in these companies, we are effectively saying that we endorse these activities and are willing to profit from them.
At this moment in history, it is paradoxical for universities to remain invested in fossil fuel companies. What does it mean for universities to seek to educate youth and produce leading research in order to better the future, while simultaneously investing in and profiting from the destruction of said future? This position is neither tenable nor ethical.
We believe that institutions of higher education have a special duty to take this stand. As academics, we are in the privileged position to understand the risks posed by climate change and to make powerful statements in support of action. We support the student-led divestment campaigns at universities around the world. We support the recent decision by the United Nations – and UN General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon – to back the divestment movement. We support the cities of Seattle, Portland, Bristol, Oxford, and nearly 50 others in their decision to divest from fossil fuels, as well as the 30 foundations and nearly 100 religious organizations that have done the same. And we support The Guardian‘s campaign to ask the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust to divest, recognizing that investments in fossil fuels are inimical to their efforts to advance global development and health.
In the words of Desmond Tutu: “We can no longer continue feeding our addiction to fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow, or there will be no tomorrow.”
Members of the ASAP Board of Directors, Officers, and Chapter Leaders
Thomas Pogge, Yale University (President)
Ashok Acharya, University of Delhi
Luis Cabrera, Griffith University
Jason Hickel, London School of Economics
Keith Horton, University of Wollongong
Mitu Sengupta, Ryerson University
Miles Thompson, Canterbury Christ Church University
Catarina Tully, FromOverHere
Oskar MacGregor, University of Skövde
Ellen Szarleta, Indiana University Northwest
Zorka Milin, Yale Law School
David Rodríguez-Arias, Spanish National Research Council
Members of the ASAP Advisory Board
Raymond W. Baker, President, Global Financial Integrity
Sonia Bhalotra, University Of Essex
Alberto D. Cimadamore, Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP)
Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, The New School
David Hulme, University of Manchester
Alnoor Ladha, /The Rules
John Roemer, Yale University
Henry Shue, Oxford University
Peter Singer, Princeton University
Paul Slovic, Decision Research
UNFCCC Article 2 states the objective of the Convention is to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”, ratified by 189 member countries.
 Also from Table 2.2 as above – note that this is the most conservative (lowest) available number; other estimates suggest that known recoverable reserves are twice as high as this figure.
 IPCC. “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” Chapter 13. http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/images/uploads/WGIIAR5-Chap13_FGDall.pdf
 See UNEP Gap report 2014 http://www.unep.org/publications/ebooks/emissionsgapreport2014/ Mitigation technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage are only in the demonstration phase, and would need to be scaled up by ~1000 times to make a significant contribution.
The Oslo Principles were featured in The Guardian. Read the article here.
It may seem that, in the absence of explicit treaties, states have no legal obligations to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, if emissions continue on their present trajectory, the harms they cause will reach catastrophic proportions, putting the human rights of billions of people in jeopardy. International human rights law is legally binding on states, which are, therefore, not free to continue business as usual. But how much do human rights and other sources of law, in particular tort law, require each state to do to reduce emissions, even in the absence of a specific treaty? A group of legal experts from around the world has answered this question, producing the Oslo Principles, setting out existing obligations regarding the climate, along with a detailed legal Commentary. These documents may help judges decide whether particular governments are in compliance with their legal obligations to address climate change. The principles may also serve many other purposes, for example they may strengthen the bargaining position of poor countries by pointing to far-reaching obligations of wealthy countries.