Let’s Stand Up for Our Right to a Healthy Environment
Public health worker Beatriz Mendoza was living near the Riachuelo River in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when she started losing feeling in her fingers and toes. Her neighbors were also experiencing health issues—including skin rashes, cancers and birth defects—clearly linked to pollution in the heavily industrialized area. The Matanza-Riachuelo basin is one of the most contaminated waterways in Latin America.
In 2004, Mendoza and other residents sued the national, provincial and municipal governments and 44 corporations. And they won. Environmental lawyer David R. Boyd describes the case in his book, The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada's Constitution. He writes that the lawsuit led Argentina’s government to establish a new river basin authority and put in place clean-up, restoration and regional environmental health plans.
The government has since increased the number of environmental inspectors in the region from three to 250, and created 139 sampling points for monitoring water, air and soil quality. Three new water treatment plants have been built, providing clean water to millions of people; 11 sewage-treatment plants have been built or expanded, also serving millions; 169 garbage dumps have been closed; and 484 polluting industrial facilities have been shut down.
As Boyd points out, this was possible because Argentina’s constitution recognizes “the right to a healthy environment and the citizens’ power to defend their rights through the judicial system.” It’s a right that people in more than 100 countries worldwide enjoy. Canadians are not among them.
Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives us freedom of expression, equal protection from discrimination and the right to life, liberty and security of the person. But one fundamental right is notably absent—to live in an environment conducive to health and well-being, with clean air, water and soil and biological diversity. As Boyd writes, “In a country where Nature is an integral element of our national identity, and in an era where scientific evidence establishes our basic dependence on a healthy environment, it is striking that our constitution makes no reference to it.”
Along with David Boyd and Ecojustice, the David Suzuki Foundation is working to change that. Boyd’s book helped launch the initiative, and the Foundation is hosting a telephone town hall with him on Sunday, Feb. 3, from 4 to 5 p.m. PST (7 to 8 EST). It’s free, but space is limited. You can register until Jan. 27 at www.davidsuzuki.org.
Boyd makes a convincing case for the necessity of such constitutional protection. He points to evidence from more than 100 nations demonstrating that, “constitutional entrenchment of environmental rights and responsibilities contributes to stronger laws, increased enforcement, an enhanced role for citizens, and improved environmental performance.”
Although the idea of a constitutional right to a healthy environment is gaining support, it does have its detractors, including some government and industry insiders in Canada. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers argues such a law would harm our economy, and some government representatives claim it would hinder tar sands and other industrial development. Boyd doesn’t buy it. He notes that constitutional rights must be balanced against competing rights. For example, free speech comes with restrictions against pornography, hate literature, false advertising and so on.
Evidence from countries with environmental rights, such as Norway, also shows the shakiness of the economic argument. “Rather than trumping economic activity,” Boyd writes, “the right to a healthy environment would compel, or at least increase the likelihood of, sustainable development.”
And, even though there is still much to be done in Argentina’s Matanza-Riachuelo River Basin, people there are already enjoying significantly improved living conditions, including a stronger local economy.
Getting the right to a healthy environment enshrined in Canada’s Constitution won’t be easy. We’re headed in the opposite direction, with environmental protections and laws being rolled back or gutted, mostly in the name of keeping us tied to a resource-extraction economy. And despite our country’s abundant water, many people, especially in First Nations communities, don’t have access to clean drinking water.
It’s time to address Canada’s dismal and worsening environmental record. If all of us—“Canadians of all ages, all backgrounds, all provinces and territories, and all political persuasions”—work together, we can make it happen.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.
By Betsy Mason
For decades, climate scientist David Keith of Harvard University has been trying to get people to take his research seriously. He's a pioneer in the field of geoengineering, which aims to combat climate change through a range of technological fixes. Over the years, ideas have included sprinkling iron in the ocean to stimulate plankton to suck up more carbon from the atmosphere or capturing carbon straight out of the air.
Solar geoengineering would involve injecting reflective aerosols from high-altitude planes into the layer of the upper atmosphere known as the stratosphere, which stretches between 10 to 50 kilometers (6 to 31 miles) above Earth's surface. The idea is that the aerosol particles would reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the planet, reducing the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases and mitigating some of the effects of climate change.
The planned Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment will send a balloon carrying scientific instruments in a gondola into the stratosphere. The instruments will release a small amount of material — likely ice or mineral dust — to form a kilometer-long plume of aerosol particles (left). Modified airboat propellers will allow the gondola to maneuver above the plume (middle) and lower instruments into the plume to take repeated measurements of how the particles spread through the stratosphere (right). ADAPTED FROM J.A. DYKEMA ET AL / PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY A 2014
David Keith envisions using multiple approaches to combat climate change. The red line shows how the impacts of climate change would worsen with a business-as-usual scenario of unabated burning of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emissions. Aggressively cutting emissions bends that curve, and removing carbon from the atmosphere offers further cuts, but there are still consequences from the already high levels of carbon dioxide. In this scenario, solar geoengineering would lessen the impact from existing atmospheric carbon dioxide, effectively carving the top off the curve.<p>Some people think we should use it only as a get-out-of-jail card in an emergency. Some people think we should use it to quickly try to get back to a preindustrial climate. I'm arguing we use solar geoengineering to cut the top off the curve by gradually starting it and gradually ending it.</p><p><strong>Do you feel optimistic about the chances that solar geoengineering will happen and can make a difference in the climate crisis?</strong></p><p>I'm not all that optimistic right now because we seem to be so much further away from an international environment that's going to allow sensible policy. And that's not just in the US. It's a whole bunch of European countries with more populist regimes. It's Brazil. It's the more authoritarian India and China. It's a more nationalistic world, right? It's a little hard to see a global, coordinated effort in the near term. But I hope those things will change.</p>
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