COVID-19 warns us: we need global environmental law

COVID-19 is a warning to us: our behaviour risks the destruction of the planet, and the obliteration of humankind – and we need not just international environmental law but fully enforceable global law to prevent it. Sándor Fülöp is an environmental lawyer who held the office of the first Parliamentary Commissioner for future generations in Hungary from 2008 to 2012 – a pioneer in intergenerational governance.

There is a growing need for solutions to the accelerating process of the ecological collapse of our planet. It is no exaggeration to say that this collapse might entail the extinction of our race, too. The narrowing space between the animal kingdom (and ever-smaller province) and human settlements results in the exchange of viruses and other factors of diseases, and we see the results. With COVID-19, if not earlier, we have all had to realise that we are part of nature, and cannot live in isolation. We share nature’s fate.

International environmental law

We have arrived at a point where the machinery of international environmental law is needed to cope with the ever-more serious challenges, by introducing more effective institutional, budgetary, legal and procedural tools.

International environmental law is, as a rule, more progressive than national laws, because lobby interests of the polluting industries and of mass consumers have less direct influence on it.

In the field of environment, the progressive line is enhanced by the world’s public voice, appearing on the Internet, in the independent media, through international and national environmental NGOs and also by forming networks of public-interest environmental experts.

However, makers of international law are aware that they need the signature of as many countries as possible; therefore, in many cases they tend to opt for lowest common denominator solutions – even so, they are at least able to amend the situation a little bit compared to the national level.

But we see that it is not enough. International environmental law must develop further – into global environmental law.

Global environmental law

In contrast to international environmental law, global environmental law should not only be created but implemented too.

The change, or rather shift, lies in broadening the circle of those who have a say and empowering them a little bit more. Also the gradual change in roleplayers results in qualitative changes in establishing environmental wrongdoing, revealing it and introducing new kinds of legal consequences.

No, we do not need a Global Government for this, just a Global Community. Global monitoring of implementation already has an infrastructure in place. Not only global networks and organisations, also you and me – ordinary citizens – can be the whistleblowers of any governmental or company behaviour that hurts basic global environmental interests, codified into a new level of international law.

Current systems just need systematising and reinforcing, but first of all we need to see the realisation of the changes that are happening in the Information Age and to harness them consciously. Through this, we can issue complaints to international institutions or just send a post to some friends on one of the dozens of community networks. Big Data analyses will see this, so infringements of the new global environmental law would be detected quickly.

Once verified, sanctions would be at hand, as well. The moral indictment, reactions of voters and consumers, also the concept of “rogue countries” or “rogue companies”, can politically and/or economically isolate even the most powerful countries or multinational companies within weeks.

Some say international law has no teeth. I am closer to opinion of those who proclaim that global environmental law does have the power to destroy national or economic role-players that seriously and blatantly disobey it. We can see examples from the fields of nuclear safety or human rights, and as the voice of the Global Community is getting stronger in environmental matters, too, I am confident that environmental wrongdoers will be strongly discouraged, too.

Lockdown musings

Anyway, the COVID-19 quarantine has some advantages, for those who are fortunate enough to use it. I was working on our balcony the other day and allowed myself to contemplate a little. In front of our house there is a big cherry tree. A blackbird was quietly eating a cherry. I say, “One piece of cherry, not all of them!”

See, this is the difference. We, humans have no sense of proportion – and for that reason we dare not have too much hope. That is why we need laws. But with just one tender reservation: it will always be by far the most miserable situation if we have to resort to law.

Image: Male common blackbird, by Shantham11, from Wikimedia Commons, used under the terms of the Creative Commons CC0 License