Online only - 1 December 2015
Last Friday, over 50,000 ordinary Victorians packed the streets of Melbourne to demand tougher global policies on climate change. Reflecting the indiscriminate effects of a warming world, the crowd was flooded with people from a myriad of backgrounds; ten-year olds marched with their grandparents, CFA volunteers marched alongside teachers and university lecturers marched shoulder to shoulder with their students. However, while the rally was mostly inclusive and cross-sectional, one group was noticeably absent; only six students from Melbourne Law School turned out, and this despite an endorsement by the Melbourne University Law Students’ Society of the march.
I’m going to come back to why there might have been so few law students present in a moment. For the meantime I want to turn your attention towards three other news stories that might have caught your eye Friday, the first of which was an article about this summer’s predicted global coral bleaching event. Briefly, coral bleaching is what occurs when sea temperatures rise to such an extent that the relationship between the coral and the tiny marine algae that provide them with energy and colour breaks down. The stress from these warmer waters causes the algae to leave the host, and if conditions do not improve then the coral dies. This summer, as a result of warming oceans and an intense El Niño, the southern hemisphere is likely to experience a mass coral bleaching episode that will likely take some reefs decades to recover from. So that’s bad news story number one.
The second article covered the ongoing bushfire crisis in Western Australia and South Australia; already these bushfires have claimed the lives of six people and destroyed scores of properties. It’s not hard to see the links, steadily rising world temperatures (the World Meteorological Organisation predicts that 2015 is likely to be the hottest on record) have left places like Australia, already vulnerable to extreme weather events, even more exposed to drought and fire. Coupled with the upcoming El Niño this summer, it’s likely that this will become a horror season for wildfires in this country.
So where do we as law students come in? Well, the ABC’s ‘top story’ for most of Friday centred on the Federal Industry Minister Christopher Pyne’s labelling of Labor’s plan to slash emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 a ‘mad policy’ that would ‘smash household budgets and smash the economy’. Leaving aside the contentious issue of whether either major parties’ climate policies are effective (in this author’s opinion the answer is clearly no), these statements bring me back to the central issue that I raised at the start of this piece: the disengagement of law students’ from the climate change debate.
Ostensibly, it’s hard to see why this is the case; students at this institution are among the most highly educated for their age-group in the country and you would expect that most of us would have at least some understanding of the seriousness of the emerging climate catastrophe. Further, given our privileged position, we, perhaps more than any other group in our society, stand in the unique position of being able to effect real change on this issue. Although arguably this responsibility extends beyond the distinction of our cohort as lawyers and pierces also our collective duty as members of the intellectual class to speak the truth and expose lies.
But make no mistake, this is an issue that ought to be a priority for all law students. First and foremost, the solutions to the wicked climate change paradox require legislative intervention. Grassroots change is already happening, but the movement is more fundamentally about the transformation of our institutional framework. As Naomi Klein outlines in her latest bestseller, ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’, these include: radically reshaping the transparency of donations to political parties, introducing strict regulations on corporate governance and increasing taxes on the companies most responsible for producing the emissions that have left us in this situation. It is clear to me that those of us with a legal education have an ethical and moral responsibility to participate in and add an educated voice to the already existing mass movement of citizens advocating for radical bottom-up social restructuring.
However, if you still don’t buy that argument, there is another reason why law students should be involved and that is because we have already shown our support for causes that run parallel to the fight against climate change. Earlier this year, close to 100 law students turned out in support of marriage equality and the MULSS published a statement that included the assertion:
As future members of the legal profession, the MULSS strongly believes its commitment to its LGBTIQ members extends to advocating for reform to achieve this equal treatment and protection under the law. The MULSS’ stated purpose of promoting ‘a commitment to social justice and a critical interest in law and the operation of law in society’ underpins this advocacy.
This is undoubtedly true, and I applaud the community at MLS for showing their support for this campaign. It would be easy to think though that the marriage equality and climate change movements are separate; that the path towards equal treatment of LGBTIQ rests independently from the necessity of curbing greenhouse emissions.
However, this assumption is not only false, it is dangerous. The civil liberty campaigns on race, gender and sexuality that have characterised the last half-century are dependent on the existence of a society that continues to offer room for fundamental freedoms. While the campaign to cut our emissions offers us an unprecedented opportunity for challenging the economic paradigm that is at the root of many of these social justice issues, if we fail to tackle it then we risk a rapid backward slide towards the dystopian future described in George Orwell’s 1984.
This may seem implausible, but the reality is that we are already seeing a world emerge in which fundamental democratic rights are being trampled, justified on the grounds of so-called ‘national security’. For example, despite its change to a new Prime Minister, Australia has continued its flagrant breaches of human rights against refugees, while overseas in France, 24 climate activists were placed under house arrest this week and thousands more were banned from participating in large-scale climate change marches under the pretext of counter-terrorism. These sorts of anti-rights, authoritarian policies are exactly the types of political freedoms that the recent civil liberty campaigns have been rallying against. The flavour of these Western government reactions to instability demonstrate the need to remain vigilant against the lurking desire of these institutions to curb civil liberties. Thus, the closer we march towards climate catastrophe we simultaneously edge dangerously close towards the precipice that shields us from authoritarianism.
What I’ve tried to demonstrate is that the links between climate change and civil liberty movements are inextricable. Indeed this is one reason why the ‘climate change’ movements have recently been rebranded as ‘climate justice’ campaigns, incorporating a recognition that the same forces that have resulted in exploitation and domination of the planet (imperialism and capitalism) are responsible for creating wealth, racial, gender and sexual inequality. The arguments of many feminist scholars have already identified the close links between domination of nature and the domination of ‘the other’. Therefore, like an ecosystem, each of the social movements I have identified is dependent on the other for its success.
If we prevented dangerous climate change but failed to tackle inequality, then we would have rescued a broken world but done little to make it a desirable place to live. But equally, if we tackle inequality but fail to address climate change then in a few short decades time we will have created a foreign and uninhabitable Earth. Given then the rapidly evaporating time-limit we have created towards planetary ecocide it is perhaps tempting to argue that the urgency of the climate change (and also anti-nuclear) agendas should be elevated above other movements. However, I’ll settle for arguing that the moral imperative for tackling climate change is at least of the same strength as that which exists for tackling all other forms of inequality and oppression.
On Thursday 10 December, as the Paris COP21 talks wind-down, citizens from across Australia and the world will take part in peaceful, civil disobedience actions. channeling the same effective strategies as those used during the Indian independence campaign and American civil rights movement. Admittedly civil disobedience can result in arrest or even criminal charges and to that extent it is perhaps natural for prospective lawyers to be wary of such behaviour. However, given the weight of the challenge, there is an incontrovertible moral imperative to subordinate our future as lawyers to our responsibilities as human beings. As global citizens, we have a responsibility to drive positive change. I hope to see you there.
To find out more about the day of action, visit: http://www.floodthesystemaus.net
Christian Slattery is a second year JD student and Competitions Officer for the Australian Law Students' Association