Climate Change

A Rising Tool in International Climate Litigation: The Right to Life

Jessamine De Ocampo, MJLST Staffer

There has been a growing national and international trend placing environmental rights and environmental justice under the umbrella of human rights. The empirical data around climate change is vastly shaping the international human rights arena, allowing environmental rights to be considered and litigated amongst human rights. As of 2019, air pollution is estimated to have resulted in and continues to result in 7 million yearly premature deaths worldwide; of which 600,000 are children under the age of 5. Entire communities, particularly island nations, are being forced to relocate due to rising sea levels while climate variability and changing weather is resulting in severe food crises threatening food security.

Climate and environmental issues have been actively permeating the international human rights field. The UN Human Right Council entered a mandate for an investigation into the correlation between human rights and environmental rights, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights commissioned their first special rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, and the UN Human Rights Committee in a General Comment, recognized the relevance of climate issues in the context of the right to life. The Right to Life is a universally recognized fundamental human right. While it can be found in a multitude of international and regional doctrines, it is primarily referenced in relation to Article 3 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The right to life doctrine essentially states that every person has a right, protected by law, to live.

In the international courts, climate litigation cases have been decided under the Right to Life doctrine with growing success. A Pakistani farmer sued his country for failing to implement environmental legislation and won; a family of rural workers sued their home country of Paraguay for failing to protect them from severe environmental contamination in which the court held “the link between environmental protection and human rights is ‘undeniable.’ ” Finally, in December 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court held that the Dutch government must reduce emissions immediately in line with its human rights obligations.

As climate change and environmental justice concerns continue to pose an ever-growing multi-layered effect on our societies, these new tools may prove to be crucial in implementing liability. As the link tying climate change and human rights becomes stronger, individuals have more than before to establish a claim. The right to life doctrine can, and should, be used to enforce government liability for failing to regulate the harmful effects of climate change.


Davos Attendees Seek Political Cover under 1 Trillion Trees

Noah Cozad, MJLST Staffer

At the World Economic Forum (otherwise known as Davos), the most popular subject was something called the Trillion Tree Initiative to help fight climate change. Nearly every attendee at the forum committed to the initiative. Including President Trump, who in the past has forcefully denied climate change’s existence, calling it a “hoax” invented by the Chinese. President Trump even mentioned the initiative in the State of the Union, and a GOP representative has introduced a bill that would commit the United States to planting 3.3 billion trees every year for the next 30 years. Davos describes the initiative as a “mass-scale nature restoration,” that hopes to provide up to one-third of the emission reductions necessary for the Paris Agreement targets. Practically, the initiative seeks to provide a single platform for a variety of reforestation projects and to mobilize funds and support.  This initiative was started by the UN as part of the New Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, 2021-2030. The UN says the initiative “is about, conserving, restoring, and growing trees. Indeed, the goal of 1 trillion trees by 2030 includes conservation of existing trees (i.e. avoided deforestation), the restoration and natural regeneration of previously degraded forest lands, including actual reforestation and tree-planting schemes on suitable agriculture land, . . . as well as urban tree planting.”

The idea of planting 1 trillion trees comes from a controversial 2019 article in Science. The article finds that global tree restoration is currently one of the most effective carbon drawdown solutions. Accordingly, planting 1 trillion trees has the potential to store 25% of the current atmospheric carbon pool. The study focuses on reforestation, as opposed to afforestation which is planting trees where none were before. Critics have argued that this is an unreliable way to fight climate change and is not a meaningful substitute for cutting back on emissions. Further, it is a very slow solution, for example it takes 25 years for a tree planting project to offset a single commercial flight.

While it is undeniable that planting large amounts of trees will help with climate change, there are still many issues with this idea. The initiative seems like a silver bullet, relatively apolitical, and very easy for people to grasp onto and understand (unlike climate change, which as a whole is extremely complex). But herein lies many of the problems. For one the initiative completely shifted the focus of Davos away from proven solutions like carbon taxes. While carbon taxes are difficult and very political, a trillion trees is a good way for banks and pension funds, that are financially exposed to fossil fuel companies for $1.4 trillion, to act as if they’re doing something. Further, simply planting tons of trees might be bad for an individual ecosystem. In fact the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India has had to ask Leonardo DiCaprio from going forward with a tree planting project as ecologists say the current plan will dry up rivers, harm the floodplains, destroy biodiversity, and eventually make the area uninhabitable for the trees in the first place. The UN itself has said that the project is NOT a silver bullet and should instead be one smaller part of a larger plan.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the initiative provides political cover to those making climate change worse and distracts from better solutions. Absent other climate policies, the United States would need to plant an area over twice the size of Texas to offset emissions. Trees play a critical role in climate change, but the best way to utilize them is to protect current forests and let them grow back naturally. And the best way to do that is to provide protections for the indigenous peoples living there, according to University of Minnesota Natural Resources Professor Forrest Fleischman. Professor Fleischman stated, “people are getting caught up in the wrong solution. . . . Instead of the guy from Saleforce saying, ‘I’m going to put money into planting a trillion trees,’ I’d like him to go and say, ‘I’m going to put my money into helping indigenous people in the Amazon defend their lands.’. . . That’s going to have a greater impact.”

Overall, the Trillion Tree Initiative is a good start, but should not be allowed to provide political cover for those invested in fossil fuels, and climate deniers. For example, the folks at Davos continue to support President Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has rolled back protections of indigenous people and the Amazon, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, thus allowing large swathes of the tropical forest to burn and the people who live there to be killed. The trillion tree initiative should not distract us from such actions that ultimately make climate change worse. Instead of one, simplistic solutions, we should push for multiple, better solutions such as protecting public lands, forests, and the rights of the indigenous peoples who live there and protect the environment, along with planting more trees.


A Green New City Plan? How Local Governments Should Plan For Climate Refugees

Shantal Pai 

Politicians, especially democratic presidential candidates, are competing to release the best “Green New Deal.” These proposals are national-scale climate plans that are meant to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the impact of climate change. But, as these plans are released, a difficult reality remains: we may be less than one year away from irreversible changes to the climate.

Regardless of which Green New Deal eventually becomes United States Law (and one will—because climate change grows more undeniable each day), in addition to a climate mitigation plan, the U.S. and its cities need a climate adaptation plan: a way to survive in the new reality.

At the point of no return (2 C average warming, worldwide) the most inhabited regions of the world will face extremely hot temperatures, dramatic weather events including storms, flooding and drought, and sea-level rise. Though some regions have developed strategies to mitigate these damages—  such as a proposed levee surrounding Manhattan—the best possible solution may be to move threatened communities to higher, cooler ground.

So, in addition to national-scale plans, local governments in communities that will be attractive in our post-industrial climate, places like Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Denver, should prepare. They need to be ready for a large influx of refugees from the coast looking for a secure future.

If Hurricane Katrina serves as an example, the first people to move permanently inland will not be the predominately white, wealthy residents of the city, but working-class residents and people of color. There are two reasons for this: (1) racially discriminatory housing practices mean people of color are most likely to face flooding and storm damage and (2) these groups are least likely to get government aid after a flood.

There has been a similar trend after Hurricane Dorian. Since the Trump Administration declined to grant temporary protected status to Bahamians fleeing uninhabitable conditions after the storm, many victims are fleeing with visas that will allow them to live in the U.S., but not to work. Many of these people will be staying with family in the United States while the Bahamas rebuilds, increasing demand for U.S. services while they are unable to contribute to local government revenue because they cannot earn an income.

Such a large influx of low and middle-income residents could wreak havoc on an unprepared regional plan. The people fleeing climate change need quick access to affordable housing, schools, and city resources, often at disproportionately high levels. At a city level, places with affordable housing already struggle to generate the revenue necessary to provide these services. In cities where property values are lower, the potential for a city to raise revenue from property taxes is lower. A massive influx of people fleeing climate change would further strain already deeply stressed city budgets.

Furthermore, a large influx of people of color often leads to “white flight”—an en masse departure of white people to nearby, more affluent cities—which deepens regional segregation and inequity.

The two combined lead to downward spirals in which the number of people of color in a community grows, leading to the departure of white people, causing property values to fall because there aren’t enough people of color who can afford to move into the neighborhood, which reduces a city’s ability to generate revenue while simultaneously leading to an influx of low-income people who are more likely to rely on city services. This phenomenon discourages building affordable housing, makes it hard for struggling cities to generate revenue, and maintains racial and economic segregation.

Strategic regional planning can combat these tendencies but needs to happen more aggressively than ever before as climate change amplifies existing inequality. First and foremost, the regions that will be most attractive to climate refugees need to encourage the development of affordable housing throughout the metropolitan area. Spreading the cost of supporting climate refugees across the region prevents any one city from being saddled with the expense of providing services and the inability to raise sufficient revenue.

Second, cities should desegregate school systems. In Louisville, Kentucky, a system to desegregate schools reduced white flight. The desegregation promoted stable housing prices and tax revenue, making it easier for cities to plan for the future.

Third, regions should build more public spaces than otherwise anticipated, in ways that avoid displacing existing poor and minority communities. Spaces like theaters, libraries, schools, and public transit will all face increased demand as new residents become acquainted with the region. These spaces increase property value, encourage wellbeing, and further reduce white flight, all of which help break the downward spiral of city revenue generation caused by white flight.

None of these solutions will prevent inequality, and refugees escaping climate change face extremely difficult challenges in relocating. But, by planning for climate refugees, local governments can help mitigate the effects of climate change on segregation.


In 2019, We Will Learn A Lot About the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Climate Change Culpability

Sam Duggan, MJLST Staffer

Several lawsuits, filed in 2017 and 2018, are seeking damages from fossil fuel companies for harms caused by climate change. Interestingly, the fossil fuel companies are conceding that climate change is real, it is exacerbated by burning fossil fuels, and it is causing injuries within the United States. For example, during a recent trial where the cities Oakland and San Francisco sued numerous fossil fuel companies for climate-related damages, an attorney representing Chevron said “Chevron accepts the consensus in the scientific communities on climate change. . . There’s no debate about climate science.” Yet, the fossil fuel companies also state that plaintiffs’ claims for nuisance and trespass, among others, must be dismissed because balancing the positive and negative externalities of fossil fuel use is a nonjusticiable political question, and the claims are otherwise displaced by the Clean Air Act. So far, the courts have largely sided with the fossil fuel companies. See City of Oakland v. BP; City of New York v. BP. Other similar cases will likely be decided this year.

Importantly, however, political question abstention and Clean Air Act displacement become less controlling depending on whether the fossil fuel companies knew about the risks of burning fossil fuels (they did), and took affirmative steps to convince the public and regulators there were no risks (they likely did)? If so, these companies may be liable under consumer protection and products liability laws just as tobacco companies were liable for their disinformation campaigns that obscured the hazards of smoking cigarettes. Lawsuits brought by plaintiff in Colorado, Maryland, and others are pursuing these legal theories, and courts will likely reach the merits this year.

Similarly, the states of New York and Massachusetts brought lawsuits against fossil fuel companies for investor fraud. These lawsuits allege, for example, that ExxonMobil perpetrated a “longstanding fraudulent scheme … to deceive investors and the investment community … concerning the company’s management of the risks posed to its business by climate change.” To support their claims, Attorneys General from New York and Massachusetts have vigorously sought discovery of Exxon’s internal communications and research—Exxon aggressively protested and countersued. In January 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a discovery dispute between Massachusetts and Exxon, therefore it allowed discovery of 40-years of Exxon’s climate-related documents. This discovery request promises to color the landscape of fossil fuel industry liability. 2019 may become a watershed year for holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for its contribution to climate change—or not.


The Environmental Costs of Amazon

Christina Petsoulis, MJLST Staffer 

Amazon. One of the 21st century’s most novel inventions. Amazon now dominates e-commerce, with 43% of money spent online coming from Amazon sales. The online retail giant has, without a doubt, changed the way society operates – in some ways, for the better, while in others, for the worse.

Amazon’s carbon footprint is nothing short of concerning, especially with its continued expansion of Prime services. Expedited shipping means more cars and trucks on the road for delivery services, and increased waste from packages that are not as consolidated as they could be. Amazon packaging demands billions of boxes each year, with over 5 billion Amazon Prime packages alone sent worldwide in 2017. In fact, 64% of American households have Amazon Prime, and traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are closing down in every market as a result of the shift toward online retail shopping.

Some experts argue that having individual consumers drive to, and shop at, traditional brick-and-mortar retailers is more inefficient than consolidating packages for delivery. I find this argument unpersuasive, as consumers tend to make small purchases each time they shop online, requiring multiple shipments per week per consumer. Moreover, while online retail continues to gain dominance, traditional retail still exists and has shipping and packaging demands of its own. This situation, in essence, doubles consumer ‘demands.’

But most of Amazon packaging is recyclable, so we’re good, right? Not exactly. First, just 34% of solid waste is recycled (attributable to both consumer behavior and access to municipal recycling services). 80% of solid waste is recyclable with just 28% of it actually being recycled. Second, the vast majority of U.S. recyclables are sent to China for processing, which is problematic because China has announced that it will no longer import foreign garbage. In fact, China has banned importation of particular paper and plastic products, leaving the U.S. to deal with its own trash. With increased waste management demand and decreased capacity to deal with it, big questions remain as to how federal, state and local government will fare the storm.

Is Amazon liable for the vast quantities of trash it introduces into the market? Will Amazon be asked to alter business behavior, such as cut down on its packaging materials or enforce package consolidation policies? These types of requirements counter Amazon’s business interests, as the dominant draw of Amazon is individualized, convenient, fast shipping. Amazon’s model facilitates individual gain (i.e. $7.99 water bottle shipped day-of-order for free) at the expense of our environment’s health (i.e. one over-sized cardboard box ending up in a landfill). The epitome of a negative externality. It seems unlikely that any sort of regulation on packaging, shipping, and handling would stand a chance in light of consumer gravitation toward online shopping.

Government has tried to regulate Amazon, but not necessarily for environmental reasons. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has probed Amazon’s pricing practices as it expands its markets beyond e-commerce, threatening companies such as Netflix and Apple with its video services.

Surely, Amazon is not the only actor in the issue of environmental costs associated with e-commerce. But with 43% of online purchases coming from Amazon, it’s hard not to point fingers at a company so heavily dominating the marketplace.


Animal-product substitutes – does it really matter what we call them?

Nick Hankins, MJLST Staffer 

Fake meat is getting good, really good. The ImpossibleTM Burger 2.0, developed by Impossible Foods Inc., is a big upgrade from its 1.0 counterpart. The 1.0 has been referred to as a “good replacement for a bad burger” and compared to an “OK Sizzler steak” –not the type of reviews to make turncoats out of meateaters.  The 2.0, on the other hand, was hailed as “a triumph of food engineering,” “a burger that could truly wean people off their meat lust,” and (probably most flatteringly) “a well-massaged Kobe ribeye.” Importantly, the latest Impossible Burger has real meat qualities, it can be juicy and red in the middle along with a texture containing small chunks like real beef.

Aside from being an obviously capable meat substitute, the Impossible Burger has the potential to get people to eat less beef and that’s good news because beef isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. In fact, beef is responsible for 41% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions, which account for 14.5% of total global emissions. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that changing our diets (including eating less meat) could contribute 20% of the effort necessary to keep global temperatures from risings 2°C above pre-industrial levels. So switching out regular burgers for ImpossibleTM  ones might be one step in the right direction toward fighting global warming.

It turns out that not everyone is on board with meat substitution products, like the Impossible Burger. In February of last year, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture calling for official definitions for the terms “beef” and “meat.” USCA argued, in its petition, that “[c]urrent labeling practices may cause consumer confusion in the market place.” However, it doesn’t look like this petition has gone very far. Unlike the U.S., France actually passed legislation that banned foods based largely on non-animal ingredients from being labeled as if they were. Recently, in response to lab grown meat (meat that is synthetically grown and not a vegetable substitution like the Impossible Burger) Terry Goodin, Indiana General Assembly representative, has put together a bill that aims to ensure that lab grown meat makers do not try to sell synthetic meat as the animal-grown original.

Manufacturers of meat alternatives argue that the ability to name their product after its meat analogue is important for branding their products to provide appropriate expectations to consumers. Names for animal product replacements like Soylent and “aquafaba” (a vegetable based egg replacement) simply don’t have the branding power to be super marketable. Considering that last year United States residents were projected to eat a record amount of meat, we might not want to bar meat alternatives from potential branding strategies just yet. In any case, it might not be worth a 20-year naming-rights battle, like the one currently being waged against dairy replacement products.


Extending the Earth’s Life to Make It Off-World: Will Intellectual Property Law Allow Climate Change to Go Unchecked?

Daniel Green, MJLST Staffer

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently discovered seven Earth-like planets. Three of these planets are even located the specific distance from the star, Trappist-1, in order to be considered in the proposed “Goldilocks zone” necessary to sustain life, thereby bringing about the conversation of whether a great migration for humanity is in order such as seen in movies of the last ten years such as Passengers, The Martian, Interstellar, even Wall-E. Even Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have made statements that the human race needs to leave earth before the next extinction level event occurs. The possibility that these planets may be inhabitable presents some hope for a future to inhabit other planets.

Sadly, these planets are forty light years away (or 235 trillion miles). Although relatively near to Earth in astronomical terms, this fact means that there exists no possibility of reaching such a planet in a reasonable time with present technology despite the fact that NASA is increasing funding and creating institutes for such off worldly possibilities. As such, humankind needs to look inward to extend the life of our own planet in order to survive long enough to even consider such an exodus.

Admittedly, humanity faces many obstacles in its quest to survive long enough to reach other planets. One of the largest and direst is that of climate change. Specifically, the rise in the temperature of the Earth needs to be kept in check to keep it within bounds of the two-degree Celsius goal before 2100 C.E. Fortunately, technologies are well on the way of development to combat this threat. One of the most promising of these new technologies is that of solar climate engineering.

Solar climate engineering, also known as solar radiation management, is, essentially, a way to make the planet more reflective in order to block sunlight and thereby deter the increase in temperature caused by greenhouse gases. Though promising, Reynolds, Contreras, & Sarnoff predict that this new technology may be greatly hindered by intellectual property law in Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property: Toward a Research Commons.

Since solar climate engineering is a relatively new scientific advancement, it can be greatly improved by the sharing of ideas. However, the intellectual property laws run directly contrary to this, begging the question as to why would anyone want to hinder technology so vital to the Earth’s survival. Well the answer lies in numerous reasons including the following three:

  • Patent “thickets” and the development of an “anti-commons”: This problem occurs when too many items in the same technological field are patented. This makes patents and innovations extremely difficult to patent around. As such, it causes scientific advancement to halt since patented technologies cannot be built upon or improved.
  • Relationship to trade secrets: Private entities that have financial interests in funding research may refuse to share advancements in order to protect the edge it gives them in the market.
  • Technological lock in: Broad patents at the beginning of research may force others to rely on technologies within the scope of the patent when working on future research and development. Such actions may ingrain a certain technology into society even though a better alternative may be available but not adopted.

There is no need to despair yet though since several steps can be taken to combat barriers to the advancement of solar climate engineering and promote communal technological advancement such as:

  • State interventions: Government can step in so as to ensure that intellectual property law does not hinder needed advancements for the good of humanity. They can do this in numerous action such as legislative and administrative actions, march-in rights, compulsory licensing, and asserting a control over funding.
  • Patent pools and pledges: Patent pools allow others to use one’s patents in development with the creation of an agreement to split the proceeds. Similarly, patent pledges, similarly, limit the enforcement of a patent holder by a promise in the form of a legally binding commitment. Though patent pools have more limitations legally, both of these incentivize the concept of sharing technology and furthering advancement.
  • Data commons: Government procurement and research funding can promote systematic data sharing in order to develop a broadly accessibly repository as a commons. Such methods ideally promote rapid scientific advancement by broadening the use and accessibility of each advancement through the discouragement of patents.

Providing that intellectual property laws do not stand in the way, humanity may very well have taken its first steps in extending its time to develop further technologies to, someday, live under the alien rays of Trappist-1.


Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property

Jesse L. Reynolds 

Postdoctoral researcher, and Research funding coordinator, sustainability and climate
Department of European and International Public Law, Tilburg Law School

Climate change has been the focus of much legal and policy activity in the last year: the Paris Agreement, the Urgenda ruling in the Netherlands, aggressive climate targets in China’s latest five year plan, the release of the final US Clean Power Plan, and the legal challenge to it. Not surprisingly, these each concern controlling greenhouse gas emissions, the approach that has long dominated efforts to reduce climate change risks.

Yet last week, an alternative approach received a major—but little noticed—boost. For the first time, a federal budget bill included an allocation specifically for so-called “solar climate engineering.” This set of radical proposed technologies would address climate change by reducing the amount of incoming solar radiation. These would globally cool the planet, counteracting global warming. For example, humans might be able to mimic the well-known cooling caused by large volcanos via injecting a reflective aerosol into the upper atmosphere. Research thus far – which has been limited to modeling – indicates that solar climate engineering (SCE) would be effective at reducing climate change, rapidly felt, reversible in its direct climatic effects, and remarkably inexpensive. It would also pose risks that are both environmental – such as difficult-to-predict changes to rainfall patterns – and social – such as the potential for international disagreement regarding its implementation.

The potential role of private actors in SCE is unclear. On the one hand, decisions regarding whether and how to intentionally alter the planet’s climate should be made through legitimate state-based processes. On the other hand, the private sector has long been the site of great innovation, which SCE technology development requires. Such private innovation is both stimulated and governed through governmental intellectual property (IP) policies. Notably, SCE is not a typical emerging technology and might warrant novel IP policies. For example, some observers have argued that SCE should be a patent-free endeavor.

In order to clarify the potential role of IP in SCE (focusing on patents, trade secrets, and research data), Jorge Contreras of the University of Utah, Joshua Sarnoff of DePaul University, and I wrote an article that was recently accepted and scheduled for publication by the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology. The article explains the need for coordinated and open licensing and data sharing policies in the SCE technology space.

SCE research today is occurring primarily at universities and other traditional research institutions, largely through public funding. However, we predict that private actors are likely to play a growing role in developing products and services to serve large scale SCE research and implementation, most likely through public procurement arrangements. The prospect of such future innovation should be not stifled through restrictive IP policies. At the same time, we identify several potential challenges for SCE technology research, development, and deployment that are related to rights in IP and data for such technologies. Some of these challenges have been seen in regard to other emerging technologies, such as the risk that excessive early patenting would lead to a patent thicket with attendant anti-commons effects. Others are more particular to SCE, such as oft-expressed concerns that holders of valuable patents might unduly attempt to influence public policy regarding SCE implementation. Fortunately, a review of existing patents, policies, and practices reveals a current opportunity that may soon be lost. There are presently only a handful of SCE-specific patents; research is being undertaken transparently and at traditional institutions; and SCE researchers are generally sharing their data.

After reviewing various options and proposals, we make tentative suggestions to manage SCE IP and data. First, an open technical framework for SCE data sharing should be established. Second, SCE researchers and their institutions should develop and join an IP pledge community. They would pledge, among other things, to not assert SCE patents to block legitimate SCE research and development activities, to share their data, to publish in peer reviewed scientific journals, and to not retain valuable technical information as trade secrets. Third, an international panel—ideally with representatives from relevant national and regional patent offices—should monitor and assess SCE patenting activity and make policy recommendations. We believe that such policies could head off potential problems regarding SCE IP rights and data sharing, yet could feasibly be implemented within a relatively short time span.

Our article, “Solar Climate Engineering and Intellectual Property: Toward a Research Commons,” is available online as a preliminary version. We welcome comments, especially in the next couple months as we revise it for publication later this year.