Climate Destruction in the Court of Public Opinion

As the leaders of more than a hundred of the world’s governments addressed the U.N. Climate Summit last week, people’s organizations from around the world convened a Climate Justice Tribunal across from the United Nations to indict political leaders and corporate polluters for their failure to protect our health, communities and planet. Those testifying were those living with the real and immediate impacts of climate change and people living on the frontlines of extractive industries that are contributing to climate change. From the front window of the U.N. Church Center auditorium participants could see the U.N. building bathed in bright sunlight, its rooftop festooned with snipers.

Sponsored by the Climate Justice Alliance, which describes itself as a collaboration of 35 U.S. organizations rooted in indigenous, African American, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, and working-class white frontline communities, the tribunal made no pretense to impartiality. It resembled less a conventional trial than a grand jury drawing up an indictment — not claiming to prove guilt but rather to show “probable cause” for charging the perpetrators with a crime. Movement activists Lisa Garcia of Earth Justice, Julia Olson of Our Children’s Trust, Rex Varona of the Global Coalition on Migration, and I served as a “People’s Judicial Panel,” listening to the testimony and providing commentary on its significance. As judges, we saw our principal role as hearing and amplifying the voices of the witnesses.

Voices of the people

The tribunal presented a panorama of oppression, but also a panorama of resistance. Globally, the witnesses ranged from Antolin Huascar Flores of the Confederación Nacional Agraria in Peru to Mamadou Goita of the Institution for Research and the Promotion of Alternatives in Development in Mali. The many representatives of indigenous communities around the world included Jihan Gearon of the Black Mesa Water Coalition in the Navajo Nation and Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a Cree activist from the tar sands region of Canada.

Witnesses from the United States ranged from Damaris Reyes of the New York group Good Old Lower East Side to Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal miner from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. Two other witnesses — Xiuhtezcatl Martinez of the Colorado youth group Earth Guardians and Kelsey Julian of Eugene, Ore. — are currently plaintiffs in lawsuits spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust, a group that’s working to legally compel states and nations to protect the climate based on the public trust doctrine.

The tribunal kicked off with a local focus as witnesses from three community organizations from the New York/New Jersey region— the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark, N.J., UPROSE in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy in Staten Island — described the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy, the inequities of the response, and the self-help mobilization of local communities.

There is no adequate way to summarize the testimony of the score of speakers from around the world, but two of the standout themes of the day — the continuity between historical struggles for justice and the struggle for climate justice and the relation between injustice and action — were captured by Katherine Eglund, chair of the NAACP chapter in Gulfport, Miss. She noted that, “Growing up in the deep South, I am very accustomed to marching for causes that demand freedom and justice.” Her first marches as a young child were about the right to vote, sit where she wished on the bus, and end racially segregated drinking fountains. “Our communities banded together, we marched, and we won those basic civil rights.”

But in her home town of Hattiesburg, Miss., there was a chemical plant that produced 250 chemicals. She and her sisters suffered not only from the unbearable smell, but from asthma, headaches and nosebleeds. Initially they didn’t make the connection to the plant, but eventually the citizens of Hattiesburg realized the chemicals were killing people. “This time, unlike the 1960s, people protested as one united community” and in 2009 the plant was closed.

As an adult she moved to Gulfport where she again faced environmental dangers, this time from an antiquated coal plant four miles from her home, which, thanks to community activism, will stop burning coal as of April 2015.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina came ashore a quarter mile from her home in Gulfport, devastating everything in its path. Her home was virtually destroyed and two of her dearest family friends drowned from the rapidly rising waters. She already believed that climate change would one day affect our lives, but, as she explained, “This storm was a life-changing wake-up call, which underscored the urgency of climate change.”

Many poor, minority residents did not have the financial means to evacuate or even to stock up on food and water, Eglund recalled. At the distribution centers, it was “no money, no access.” Witnessing the disproportionate impacts of climate change was, for Eglund, “just as unsettling as the separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws.” Climate disasters hurt all of us, she noted, but some more than others. “Corporate greed is the Jim Crow of climate change.”

Like many of the speakers, Eglund described her reaction to the 400,000-strong People’s Climate March two days before, saying, “I witnessed hope. I witnessed the promise of climate justice. I witnessed a worldwide diverse amalgamation of brothers and sisters united in a common cause to save our planet.” She also wondered what Martin Luther King Jr. would have said if he had been able to take part in the climate march. “Maybe he would say, ‘Fossil-free at last! Fossil-free at last! Thank God almighty, one day we’re going to be fossil-free at last.’”


The other judges and I presented a synopsis of the testimony we heard in a preliminary “Findings and Statements.” It noted, for example, “rivers poisoned from toxic discharges, air polluted from incinerators, land destroyed from dangerous chemicals used in wartime, land grabs for industry and from development projects, and forced migration of peoples and communities.” It described decisions disproportionately impacting low-income communities, indigenous people and people of color, whose families suffer illness, are exposed to carcinogens, lead and radioactive waste, and can’t swim in their rivers or safely play in their playgrounds. The judicial panel also recognized specific impacts of climate change, such as “extreme drought, forest fires, lakes that dry up, loss of farms and forests, storm surges in cities, that rob people of livelihoods, jobs and their ways of life.”

Next, we emphasized that the witnesses and the people whom they represent are taking action against these atrocities and crimes against humanity. They are standing up to sue governments and corporations, to speak out, to march, to engage in civil disobedience. They are growing food to nourish their communities without the use of fossil fuels; eliminating waste through composting and recycling; and building on- and off-grid solar energy systems that will feed electricity to the people who need it. The struggle against climate change and those who are responsible for it is “creating a common bond and a common struggle among people everywhere,” manifested in the People’s Climate March and related protests around the world.

The judicial panel concluded by addressing the responsibility — and the culpability — of corporations and governments, saying, “Based on the evidence we have heard here today, the nations of our world are in violation of their most fundamental legal and constitutional obligations.” We called on governments to honor their duty to protect the atmosphere, which belongs in common to the world’s people, and halt their contribution to climate destruction.

While the panel recognized that it does not have the authority to force governments to take such action, it cited the view of international law professor Richard Falk, who — during his opening speech at the World Tribunal on Iraq in 2005 — said, “When governments and the United Nations are silent, and fail to protect victims of aggression, tribunals of concerned citizens possess a law-making authority.” We judges argued the same is true when governments fail to protect victims of climate change and observed that the failure of governments to protect human rights and the public trust has prompted the co-owners of the atmospheric commons to turn to mass civil disobedience to protect their common property. These actions must be seen “not as violations of the law, but as attempts to enforce it.” They represent the effort of tens of thousands of people to assert their collective right and responsibility to protect our public trust property, which includes resources like the earth’s climate that are essential to our survival.

Based on the evidence heard, we concluded that “those who blockade coal-fired power plants or block tar sands oil pipelines are committing no crime.” Rather, they are exercising their right and responsibility to protect the atmospheric commons they own along with all of present and future humankind. They are acting to prevent a far greater harm — indeed, “a harm that by virtue of the public trust doctrine is itself a violation of law on a historic scale.”

The future of climate tribunals

Climate change, as best-selling author and journalist Naomi Klein has said, changes everything. It represents a new stage in human history. It will require change on everyone’s part, including change in our movements. At the Climate Justice Tribunal we could see one aspect of that change going on before our eyes, as social justice activists take on climate change. Their work is a logical, organic evolution from anti-globalization, global justice and environmental justice movements — a growing expression of globalization from below. It will be one element of the emerging response.

Similar self-transformations are going on in other constituencies that participated in the People’s Climate March, such as the veterans of the global justice movement, Occupy Wall Street and organized labor. Each will have to figure out how to relate to the other parts and the movement as a whole. We know how to struggle, we know what’s wrong with the false solutions, but we have yet to envision the overall process of a just transition to a climate safe world.

In 1967, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, undoubtedly the most famous philosophers of their era, convened the International War Crimes Tribunal, at which a distinguished panel heard evidence that the United States was committing war crimes in Vietnam. The tribunal led millions of people around the world to question the Vietnam War and encouraged tens of thousands to resist it. Since then, it has inspired many civil society tribunals, including more than 20 independent international tribunals held in countries around the world to examine the criminality of the Iraq war. The Climate Justice Tribunal was neither as prestigious nor as ambitious as the Russell Tribunal. But it might be the start of something of comparable importance.

The Climate Justice Tribunal established a credible case that the governments and corporations of the world are systematically violating human rights, international law and their duty to protect the public trust by allowing the greenhouse gas emissions that are destroying the earth’s climate. Future climate tribunals could examine the evidence in greater detail. They could issue declaratory judgments and injunctions. They could also make findings on the rights and responsibilities of global citizens to enforce the law and their legal rights vis-à-vis governments that try to subdue them when they do so.

Such tribunals might influence official courts to enforce the law against fossil fuel corporations and governments that are acting like their captives. And if they do not, people’s tribunals may have a role to play in legitimating the world’s people to step in and engage in a nonviolent insurgency to save the planet.—

Jeremy Brecher is a historian of social movements and a co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. His book “Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival” will be published by Paradigm Publishers January 1, 2015. He was a member of the Peoples Judicial Panel of the Climate Justice Tribunal.

This article originally appeared on Waging Non-Violence.

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