This article is particularly relevant to the COVID-19 crisis. It offers a perspective on how we tackle complex challenges and reflects on paths to achieving global sustainability.
In the article, Alex Bartholomew reviews Insight for Good’s July 2020 interview with Professor Randall Abate, Professor of Environmental Law at Monmouth University, New Jersey.
She identifies a number of insights described by Professor Abate on climate change justice and understanding human behaviour to promote long-term sustainability.
About Professor Abate
Randall S. Abate, J.D. (Doctor of Jurisprudence) is a Professor in the Department of Political Science & Sociology at the US University of Monmouth where he teaches Constitutional Law, Civil Rights, Environmental Policy, Animal Law & Policy, and The Science and Politics of Climate Change. You can see his biography here.
His latest two books are: “Climate Change and the Voiceless” (2019), and “What Can Animal Law Learn From Environmental Law?” (2020).
Beyond self-interest: real justice must involve the ‘voiceless’
“Climate Change and the Voiceless” (2019) provides an insight on protecting the rights of the voiceless, namely future adult humans, wildlife and natural resources, through litigating for enhanced government stewardship and rights-based protections for these groups.
It is unjustified and unfair to develop policy and law without taking into consideration the needs of the voiceless. Ultimately, considering the voiceless will also protect the environment and benefit us all.
Through a deeper look into Professor Abate’s main fields of study, Environmental Law and Animal Law, we see the effect of human self-interest. His latest book, “What Can Animal Law Learn From Environmental Law?” (2020), is concerned with bridging the gap that has typically existed between these two areas of law despite their many shared themes and challenges.
Both areas of law concern wildlife, nature and humans interacting in the same environment; however, environmental law is seen as science-based and driven by a need to protect human health, whereas animal law recognises a moral obligation above self interest.
Professor Abate’s insights help us consider all sections of society and the environment, moving away from an isolating of disciplines that caters to our limited capacity to think holistically.
We are overwhelmed by tomorrow’s future challenges
Professor Abate is a self-proclaimed pragmatist and questions humanity’s capacity for attending to long-term threats that have little immediate impact on human health and welfare but the potential to devastate the human species.
For example, the concept of sustainable development has existed since the late 80s, and is used as an aspirational reference point in environmental law, for example, in the United States’ National Environmental Policy Act. He notes, however, that beyond the requirement to ‘consider’ environmental effects there is no enforcement mechanism that would directly enable sustainable development, and suggests a carbon budget for individual projects that could make the challenge more manageable.
Professor Abate is disappointed by the lack of preventative measures to combat climate change at the international scale. He concedes that there have been some attempts among countries to join forces such as the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement, but none have been convincing nor effective enough to bring about any combative change.
Professor Abate notes that the absence of an international enforcement body allows for the failure of international efforts, and that national laws are inherently more productive. Further, he questions the possibility of effectively regulating climate change when economic priorities take precedence. Averting climate change implies extensive economic sacrifice and in the short term will always be overridden by immediate economic requirements. Tackling climate change at the local or regional level will ultimately be more effective.
We are more effective when we chunk complex problems
We are better at changing behaviour when challenges are presented in small chunks. Breaking down problems makes them more manageable. Professor Abate identifies two important obstacles to effective action: the sheer enormity of the problem, and the lack of consensus on the legitimacy of global warming science and the threat of climate change.
He cites the 1980’s ozone crisis as a model example of the right circumstances for effective measures against an environmental threat. At the time stratospheric ozone depletion threatened humanity in a way similar to the current threat of climate change. Unlike climate change, the threat was a narrow, identifiable scientific challenge affecting a small sector of the economy. It was conclusively agreed that chlorofluorocarbon emissions were causing the depletion of the ozone layer and these chemicals were replaced with an ozone-friendly counterpart in an effort led by the US.
Climate change is not so simple. It threatens all sectors of the economy and requires long-term changes to ‘normality’; it is a costly and unappealing problem to solve, thus explaining the lack of political will surrounding it. It is important to narrow down challenges to make them more manageable.
The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity
The 2020 pandemic has shown us that we can learn from the ‘now’ more than ever. As we live in a so-called ‘new normal’ because of Covid-19, it shows we can dictate what ‘normality’ means.
More importantly, we must accept that our previous normality led us to this pandemic. Professor Abate believes that the outbreak of Coronavirus was preventable. He presents the similarities between the pandemic and climate change. Both are long-term, slow-onset problems which were known to be imminent. In fact, it can be said that the pandemic resulted from humanity’s refusal to stop exploiting animals and illegal wildlife trade in the belief that nature exists for our consumption and economic gain.
As he explains, nature responds to how we treat it, and if we have not learned that from climate change, we should from the outbreak of Covid-19.
Marginalised communities are suffering most
Climate change and the pandemic are also linked by human rights concerns and justice issues as marginalised communities are disproportionately affected by both global problems.
In this way, environmental protection is not just about science and resources, it is also about people. This link to human rights draws more attention to environmental law and allows the opportunity for progress in the field.
Behaviour change as an important precursor for change
Human behaviour is a powerful change maker. We respond to two motivations that can be harnessed: social acceptance and economic motivations.
Governments can use nudges to encourage certain behaviours, for example, by creating tax breaks for the purchase of hybrid vehicles or by implementing a plastic bag charge. Professor Abate expects that similar nudges such as a ‘beef tax’ could follow, and cites the example of one University in the UK which decided to ban beef from its cafeteria in order to lower its environmental impact.
Equally, behaviour change can result from the fear of social rejection, for example, flight shaming led to a fall in air passengers in parts of Europe pre-Covid. Crucially, we must feel we possess the power to change the trajectory of climate change to respond effectively and break down into daily actions to benefit our long-term wellbeing.
Our obvious inability to cooperate at large scale might mean we just rely on science and technology
On a global scale, it appears that our future ability to control climate change and improve animal welfare will result from investment in science and technology. Geo-engineering is a prominent concept in this field, involving the manipulation of the atmosphere at a global level in order to cool the environment. As for the meat industry, lab-grown meat has become known as the answer to ‘clean meat’.
Nevertheless, Professor Abate warns that these futuristic endeavours come with trade-offs. Tinkering with the global environment undoubtedly brings about known and unknown risks, for example it could lead to the increased marginalisation of developing countries where communities rely on weather patterns such as known monsoon seasons. ‘Clean meat’ is not a perfect solution as it is energy intensive and still requires some killing of animals.
Although we can hope that humanity will prioritise the slow-onset, long-term impending threat of climate change sooner rather than later, it may take something even more serious than Covid-19 to get us there.
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