Exclusive Interview with Greenpeace: Is Pollution a Human Rights Violation?

By The Amir Khalessi Foundation Editorial Board*

“Protecting human rights” is not exactly a narrow topic. Though documents such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) make a valiant attempt at concretely defining and categorizing them, human rights are, nonetheless, hazy philosophical concepts. Thinkers from Plato to Hobbes, Rumi to Locke, and Laozi to MLK have grappled with them for centuries, and yet, there’s no firm, universally accepted definition of what human rights constitute.

But maybe, a “firm” definition isn’t exactly the correct goal here; the term’s vagueness might be a positive element for this philosophical discussion. Indeed, vagueness provides plenty of room for refining and re-evaluating our standards of human rights as new issues take center stage in public policy discussions.

One issue that has recently received enormous political and media attention in the post-BP Oil Spill world is the fight to minimize environmental pollution. As you’re reading this article, a six-day global conference in China is taking place. And in December, a United Nations summit will take place in Cancun to discuss globalizing cap-and-trade legislation and the economic effects of environmental regulations. Though diplomats, politicians, scientists, environmental lobbyists, and university students have taken remarkable efforts to establish a multitude of “green” advocacy groups, increasing awareness about the adverse consequences of environmental pollution requires greater discussion about the philosophical underpinnings of the issue. In this article and our exclusive interview with Greenpeace, arguably one of the largest international non-governmental organizations dedicated to protecting the environment, we grapple with the question: “Is environmental pollution a human rights violation? Why or why not?

Though we already established that there’s no set metric for determining what is and isn’t a human rights violation, we postulate that the following three characteristics are intrinsic to all human rights violations. First and foremost, we will use the basic definition or unalienable rights set forth by John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government: “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions (Second Treatise, Sec 6).” Second, an agent (e.g. a person, state, or corporation) that carries out the violation must exist. Third, the agent either a) directly commits the violation through its own policies and actions or b) indirectly commits the violation by not protecting the individuals it has agreed to protect.

In the case of environmental pollution, applying the first property is pretty clear. Pollution harms individuals’ health and contaminates the Earth, thereby threatening the health of future generations. Applying the second property is also simple: agents might range from people who neglect to recycle plastics or corporate titans that reap profits while spewing greenhouse gases into the air.

The third property, however, is the center of much controversy in environmental pollution debates. During the BP Oil Spill, the media was attacking BP for not adhering to its highest safety standards. Though BP did not “intentionally” pollute the environment, the company neglected to follow the stringent safety precautions it had agreed to take. Thus, the Obama Administration held BP culpable for the oil spill and ordered it to “compensate” victims. “The BP Crisis…is a human rights violation in that it takes away the livelihood of many people,” said a leader from Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS). “It takes away their means of income. If you do not compensate them somehow, there’s a human rights abuse.” The leader of SSS carefully noted that monetary reparations, however, don’t sufficiently compensate for human rights abuses caused by environmental pollution. “Whenever you engage in some sort of environmental destruction (direct or indirect), you are denying someone else’s access to clean air or clean water. In China, a third of the Yangtze is unusable as a result of pollution,” he said.

The issue of water contamination in China raises an interesting point: corporations that fail to regulate their own pollution are not the only agents that are indirectly committing human rights abuses. Indeed, governments have a contractual obligation to protect the lives and well being of their citizens. By acting as a bystander in the face of water contamination and oil spills, governments fail to fulfill their fundamental duties. And though many may argue that protecting the environment for the sake of doing so is a basic duty, casting environmental preservation in terms of human rights is a strong way lobby for more concrete government solutions to pollution.

Grappling with enormous issues such as global warming, however, is too much for one government to handle. Undeniably, pollutants produced by one nation create negative externalities for other countries (e.g. greenhouse gases produced by factories in San Francisco spread westward via wind currents to China). A truly pragmatic solution to pollution requires a sustained international effort. The Amir Khalessi Foundation interviewed Kyle Ash, a Senior Legislative Analyst from Greenpeace, to discuss the status of current international efforts as well as the philosophical questions raised in this article.  The full text of the interview is attached below:

The Amir Khalessi Foundation: “What is Greenpeace’s perception of climate summits in general? Do these summits ever result in any large-scale, concrete progress?”

Greenpeace USA: “Climate summits bring the global community together to discuss a problem for which we must have a global solution, so in the case of climate there is no alternative. Summits are also an opportunity for decisionmakers to share and promote national and international policy options, to be considered by experts and civil society for their effectiveness and fairness. Even if the result is not a single multilateral agreement, climate summits certainly help promote beneficial national policies. Leading up to Copenhagen, which saw no treaty, countries like China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, and even the US announced new national policies on greenhouse gas emissions that many are already implementing.”

The Amir Khalessi Foundation: “A recent article by CNN noted that “Climate change skeptics say that extreme weather and temperature fluctuations are part of normal weather patterns and are not caused by human activity. They also accuse climate-change activists of using bad science to pursue a liberal agenda.” How would Greenpeace respond to these climate change skeptics?”

Greenpeace USA: “The media often incorrectly refer to climate deniers as ‘skeptics’ – a word that better describes 99% of the experts from every discipline who through scientific observation have concluded that anthropogenic global warming is happening and that it will be catastrophic if we don’t stop polluting the atmosphere. This is taken for granted by every peer-reviewed scientific publication in English.

Climate denialism persists in large part because polluting industries, which profited from the status quo, are using their vast resources to wield influence in the media and in politics. Journalists and politicians should expose industry-funded efforts to fashion public opinion and undermine good policy, and policy should be built on the knowledge of experts from relevant fields and focused on public health. Media and policymakers also need to call out, or at least stop using, industry-suggested terms like ‘bad science,’ which especially in the case of long overdue environmental policies is a euphemism for ‘information I do not want to hear.’”

The Amir Khalessi Foundation: “The Amir Khalessi Foundation is dedicated to reporting and analyzing global human rights abuses. Would Greenpeace define environmental pollution as a human rights abuse? Why or why not?”

Greenpeace USA: “Greenpeace has long worked with the environmental justice movement and development organizations. We consider environmental pollution to be human rights abuses in many cases, particularly since pollution tends to be placed by industry and policymakers in communities who are disenfranchised. We are working with other organizations at every stage of the fight against fossil fuels to expose human rights abuses, from toxics caused by oil refining to asthma caused by burning coal. Comprehensive and effective policies to reduce climate change are going to be defined in large part by their relation to equity and public health.”

*Opinion editorials represent the views of The Amir Khalessi Foundation Editorial Board and do not necessarily reflect opinions of The Amir Khalessi Foundation or its staff. The Editorial Board consists of the Opinion Editor, the Founders, and outside advisers to the foundation.

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