A sustainable environment should be a human right

Written By: - Date published: 9:18 am, April 10th, 2024 - 47 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, Europe, greens, human rights, james shaw, science - Tags:

James Shaw’s New Zealand Bill of Rights (Right to Sustainable Environment) Amendment Bill appears in Parliament’s order paper today. It is well down the list so I expect that it will take some time to reach, probably months although there is talk about it being reached today.

The bill on the face of it is quite simple. If passed it would amend the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act to provide that “[e]veryone has the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment”.

And who could disagree with this? Because all other recognised rights will be severely compromised if the environment collapses. Your right not to be deprived of life will be severely affected. Your right to not be subject to torture or cruel treatment would be worthless as a collapsing environment inflicted the cruellest of treatments possible.

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion would be mostly irrelevant as survival became more and more important. The extreme control measures that are likely will make freedom of expression and of peaceable assembly, association and movement nice to haves. And they would all but ensure that rights of liberty, not to be arbitrarily detained and to be subject to minimum standards of criminal procedure would become luxuries we could not afford.

Clearly our civilisation is completely reliant on having a sustainable environment. And if our environment fails then fundamental human rights will surely follow.

The European Court of Human Rights understands this. A recent decision to a case brought by some senior women living in Switzerland ruled that their rights to a family life had been breached by the changing climate and that that the Swiss authorities had not acted in time to come up with a good enough strategy to cut emissions.

From the Guardian:

Weak government climate policies violate fundamental human rights, the European court of human rights has ruled.

In a landmark decision on one of three major climate cases, the first such rulings by an international court, the ECHR raised judicial pressure on governments to stop filling the atmosphere with gases that make extreme weather more violent.

The court’s top bench ruled that Switzerland had violated the rights of a group of older Swiss women to family life, but threw out a French mayor’s case against France and that of a group of young Portuguese people against 32 European countries.

This last case failed because the court ruled the young people who are Portuguese did not have standing to bring the case against other EU nations and needed to firstly bring their claim before the Portuguese courts.

But the implications of the decision are clear. Again from the Guardian:

Joie Chowdhury, an attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law campaign group, said the judgment left no doubt that the climate crisis was a human rights crisis. “We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond,” she said.

This case has a New Zealand equivalent where Northland Kaumatua has sued the seven big polluters arguing that their role in producing climate change had caused him loss. The Supreme Court has ruled that the case can proceed to a full trial and overturned a lower court ruling that the case be struck out on the basis Mr Smith had no reasonable cause of action.

Mr Smith still has to establish his claim. But the Court’s ruling that his claim is viable will put the polluters under some pressure.

The case has its critics. The Head of the New Zealand Initiative thinks that the decision is evidence that the Supreme Court is an activist court. When it comes to climate change give me a Court that will tell the Government it is breaching fundamental rights by not protecting the environment any time.

If Shaw’s amendment was passed claims against polluters would have even greater viability.

I hope the bill passes so that the most fundamental human right, to ensure that our grandchildren have a viable environment to live in, is protected. But I suspect that working towards a sustainable environment will not be something this Goverment will be prepared to commit to and that we will need to rely on the Courts to achieve this.

47 comments on “A sustainable environment should be a human right ”

  1. tc 1

    Sounds great but likely to be in the 'gone by lunchtime' bucket with the CoC looking to leverage the environment for profit with ministerial interventions if required.

  2. Michael 2

    Labourdidn't do anything beyond the merely performative during all its years in office. Crying crocodile tears over the environment now won't impress anyone.

    • mickysavage 2.1

      Huh?

      Emissions have peaked and reduced during the past three years.

      Significant progress has been reached. James Shaw has played a big part in it.

      Anything factual to back up your assertion?

  3. Dolomedes III 3

    How does a government guarantee everyone a clean, healthy and sustainable environment? There's some risk associated with most human activities. Does the bill propose practical measures, like reducing permissible levels of E. coli or nitrate in waterways?

    I wonder what the Greens' agenda is here. Is this aimed at changing the government's climate change policies? Compelling the NZ government to come down harder on emissions won't make anyone any safer from climate change, as we contribute a mere 0.17 % of global emissions.

    Is this about compelling the government to backtrack on its tobacco policy, amongst other things? Would the government need to ban other substances that pose significant health risks, like alcohol? If so, I'm afraid cannabis would have to remain illegal, as it's not the safe drug some of its devotees paint is as: https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/article/42/5/1262/2413827?login=true

    Lastly, I'm very unimpressed with the argument that " Your right to not be subject to torture or cruel treatment would be worthless … if the environment collapses". The Soviet Union caused horrendous environmental damage, but I'll go out on a limb and say that, despite the pollution they endured, Soviet citizens would have preferred not to suffer the arbitrary cruelties of Stalin's regime.

    • Robert Guyton 3.1

      "How does a government guarantee everyone a clean, healthy and sustainable environment?"

      It can't, but it can do it's very best.

      The present lot have thrown in the towel and don't give a toss, so long as they and their cronies can make more money.

      If "a clean, healthy and sustainable environment" isn't central to any Government's commitment to the community, why would anyone with a brain, heart and soul, vote for them?

      • Dolomedes III 3.1.1

        I agree with some of that – though not about the present government “throwing in the towel”. And the existence of strong environmental protection legislation in most developed countries shows that governments take environmental protection very seriously. But it's fatuous to declare a clean, healthy, sustainable, environment "a human right", especially when no government has complete control over the environment in its territory. This bill is a waste of parliament's time.

        • Robert Guyton 3.1.1.1

          No government has complete control over any of the human rights. Knowing that, they do the very best they can.

          This horrid crew will pretend that this bill is a waste of time, but only because they don't believe that "a clean, healthy, sustainable, environment is "a human right", the reason being, such a position would interfere with their hunger for money.

          • Dolomedes III 3.1.1.1.1

            "No government has complete control over any of the human rights."

            False equivalence. Any government – with good will – can guarantee freedom of expression, freedom from arbitrary detention, and freedom from torture.

            • Robert Guyton 3.1.1.1.1.1

              "Any government – with good will – can guarantee freedom of expression, freedom from arbitrary detention, and freedom from torture."

              Name me one such government.

            • Michael Scott 3.1.1.1.1.2

              Governments have control over human rights insofar as they put them into law.

              Human rights have little power if no one is obligated to honour or deliver them.

            • Incognito 3.1.1.1.1.3

              Even BORA is not absolute and there are limitations to it under certain justified circumstances. In addition, breaches of Human Right still occur despite BORA – some of those even by [our] government itself. This doesn’t make BORA worthless and a waste of time.

              You seem to use a very strict and absolute meaning of “guarantee” (which happens to be your own wording) as in ‘ironclad, watertight, and unconditional’.

            • Robert Guyton 3.1.1.1.1.4

              Keen to hear Dolomedes lll's response.

        • Incognito 3.1.1.2

          You continue with your bad faith comments. You argue for absolutism, which is unrealistic and thus unattainable. No government can have or exercise “complete control” and this is just nonsense.

          The only waste here is you wasting our time, again.

          • Robert Guyton 3.1.1.2.1

            I reckon they are too.

            It would be rewarding if they were to hold to a view and prove it to be true.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 3.2

      Climate change mitigation: reducing emissions [modified 25 March 2024]
      Now, more ambitious goals are set that include a net 55% or greater reduction below 1990 levels by 2030 and a climate-neutrality objective by 2050. Reaching these goals will require even higher emission cuts through transitioning from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. It also means halting deforestation, using land sustainably and restoring nature until we reach the point where the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is balanced with the capture and storage of these gases in our forests, oceans and soil.

      https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/data-tools/methane-tracker

      Compelling the NZ government to come down harder on emissions won't make anyone any safer from climate change, as we contribute a mere 0.17 % of global emissions.

      But what can I do (wrings hands) – I contribute less than 0.000000032% ( 0.17% / 5,260,000 ) of global emissions – I don't understand the problem.

      Understanding climate change
      Increased greenhouse effect
      The problem we now face is that human activities – particularly burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), agriculture and land clearing – are increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases. This is increasing the greenhouse effect, which is contributing to warming of the Earth.

      But my contributions are tiny – I can't make a difference – why bother? It's funny, really – puts me in mind of an old Fonterra application to increase the waste discharged into the Manawatu River. Part of their argument was that the river was already so badly polluted that overall a little more waste wouldn't make a difference.

      Apparently there's still plenty of time to "go back to the drawing board"- Luxon

      Govt sidelines Climate Commission in seeking do-over of advice
      [8 April 2024]
      The methane review lays the groundwork for watering down climate targets while using science as cover for what is ultimately a political decision


      https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0309/S00040/images-farmers-fart-tax-protest-at-parliament.htm [4 Sept 2003] “Images from the National Party media unit.

      The ‘flickering’ of Earth systems is warning us: act now, or see our already degraded paradise lost [31 Oct 2023]
      In the 2030s, 40s or 50s, when the climate crisis has manifested itself in global catastrophe, some wretched politician will be running round in circles whimpering: “Nobody told us it would be this bad.

      • Dolomedes III 3.2.1

        Fair arguments, but not relevant to my point. Declaring a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to be a "human right" won't enable the NZ government to guarantee its citizens anything about climate.

        • KJT 3.2.1.1

          "Our contribution will be small. So we need not do anything"?

          Right??

          Of all the fatuous reasons for doing nothing to play our part in helping to prevent a global catastrophe.

          Yours takes the prize for today.

          • Dolomedes III 3.2.1.1.1

            Please don't put words in my mouth. Since when have I argued for doing nothing? My point is that precisely zero will be accomplished by legislating to declare a clean, healthy, sustainable environment a "human right".

            • Robert Guyton 3.2.1.1.1.1

              Tell us then, Dolomedes, what should we do?

            • Incognito 3.2.1.1.1.2

              “precisely zero”, that’s utter nonsense and B&W arguing of the worst kind, which re-emphasises that you’re a bad faith commenter or just a dimwit. Given that you work in a NZ university, the former seems more likely and I think it’s time to give you a Mod warning again soon.

              • Dolomedes III

                Stop it, you'll hurt your throat.

                OK, we declare a clean, healthy, sustainable environment to be a "human right". Immediately someone or some organization takes the government to court for breaching our human rights, for supposedly not doing enough about climate change. The main beneficiaries will be the lawyers, laughing all the way to the bank. How will be public be better off? With the best will in the world, the NZ government cannot possibly make any guarantees about climate, in the way that it can (with good will) guarantee our rights to freedom of expression, or freedom for torture by the state.

                Your "bad faith" accusation exemplifies the self-righteousness of contemporary progressivism, just as your appeal for the Mods to "do something" exemplifies its authoritarianism.

        • Drowsy M. Kram 3.2.1.2

          Imho, such a declaration is aspirational. Much like declaring a climate crisis doesn't achieve anything of itself, nevertheless it may prompt greater awareness and eventually even action – although with our CoC govt, I won’t be holding my breath.
          And if there’s no useful action, at least there's the cold comfort of "I told you so!" sad

          • Dolomedes III 3.2.1.2.1

            Yes, probably. But I wish the contemporary left was more practical, and less "aspirational" (I hate the word). And declaring something that can't be guaranteed a "human right" just debases the idea of human rights. I wonder if a year in China or Russia would give James Shaw a better grasp of what human rights are.

            • Robert Guyton 3.2.1.2.1.1

              I wish the contemporary left was less aspirational.

              Yeah. It would be better if they just gave up and accepted the harsh reality.

            • Incognito 3.2.1.2.1.2

              BORA is an important piece of NZ legislation; wherever there are humans [living together] their rights need to be protected. You seem to have a warped idea of what human rights are, of why they’re necessary (and vital), and why they apply to all humans not just to more extreme situations where [some of] those rights are most under threat.

              • thebiggestfish

                Is it really?. Did you take that view during 2020, 2021 and early 2022 when the government of the time ran all over it. What's good for the gander as they say.

            • Drowsy M. Kram 3.2.1.2.1.3

              And declaring something that can't be guaranteed a "human right" just debases the idea of human rights.

              Bloody meddling UN – debasing all over the shop – what do 'they' know wink

              https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

    • mickysavage 3.3

      Per head of population we are among the highest emitters of greenhouse gasses in the world. Of course we should do something.

      • Michael 3.3.1

        That's why I said Labour did nothing substantive. Any reduction in emissions over the last three years was largely confined to 2020 snd the pandemic. They began rising again as economic activity resumed. As for Labour's "actions", it watered down the Zero Carbon statute (Shaw's finest achievement) and rendered it merely rhetorical.

        • Leaps 3.3.1.1

          Even the longest journey begins with a single step. Yes Labour may not have done as much as many would have liked for the environment and climate change. However, they did not more than the current Ghidorah government who have tried their level best to undo anything the Labour achieved.

    • Incognito 3.4

      How does a government guarantee everyone a clean, healthy and sustainable environment?

      This seems to be straw man; the Bill’s wording doesn’t mention a guarantee per se. However, an amendment of BORA would mean affirmation, protection, and promotion of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

      Does the bill propose practical measures, like reducing permissible levels of E. coli or nitrate in waterways?

      This is a Bill about Human Rights, not a policy proposal to clean up waterways.

      Your other comments about the use and consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis (and the risk of psychosis – WTF!?) are irrelevant and whataboutery to distract and divert, as is your flawed analogy with the Stalin regime.

      Again you come across as a disingenuous time-wasting troll, something for which you already served a one-month ban not so long ago.

    • Phillip ure 3.5

      So dolo is a pot-reactionary..eh..?

      Quelle surprise..!..eh..?

      Well ..I waded through it..yr 'evidence'..

      A few (bullet-point) issues:

      It was done in 2013…a lot of countries have looked and decriminalised since then ..so..?

      The very small actual group of cases used..to make their point ..

      And/but the laugh out loud moment comes in the summary at the end ..

      ..where they cite alcohol..and state emphatically that 'nobody would say that a glass of wine a day does any harm'…(!)..

      ..funny story…dolo..now they do actually say that..that alcohol is a poison..at any level of consumption..

      Your 'evidence' is a crock/joke..eh dolo .?

      Btw dolo…do you drink piss ..?

      Best you flag it..and buy a bag of bud instead..eh .?

      It'll be much better for yr health..eh..?

  4. Ad 4

    This lot would reduce "sustainable environment" down to "wadeable environment".

  5. thinker 5

    "The bill on the face of it is quite simple. If passed it would amend the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act to provide that “[e]veryone has the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment"

    A government full of 'people who feel entitled to things that others can't have, regardless of relative need' (not thinking of anyone in particular) might amend the bill to: "some people have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment", namely themselves and their friends.

    Problem is, the environment doesn't work that way and the rest of us have to wait until that particular penny drops, if it ever does …

  6. Incognito 6

    Not under this Government, but perhaps in the not-so-distant future we might see more of the environment be granted legal status of a person similar to Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017. Such double-sided/dual protection seems logical and sensible.

  7. For us to have a sustainable environment, we need an environmental framework that is fit for the 21st Century.

    The Resource Management Act is great. It really is. It might be 33 years old and disliked by every party in Parliament, but it is an Act that I think can be rewritten as a Mk II. The gist of it is already there, though some definite refinements will be needed and a few new parts added – we need stronger provisions requiring councils to plan for natural hazards; strengthening te Tiriti o Waitangi and enabling the integration of recycling programmes.

    The major challenge will be the usual problem: political agenda's getting in the way.

  8. gsays 8

    What do we mean by "sustainable environment"? I looked at the link but didn't see a definition.

    The best definition of sustainable, in relation to soil, that I have heard is 'in better condition this season than last season'.

    Which raises another question, what is better condition?

    (What follows is not a result of formal education, just what I have picked up bumbling through life.)

    Forgive the corporate speak, but there would be some Key Performance Indicators such as Friability/Structural Condition, water retention, ability to support Mycorrhizal network, appropriate minerals and nutrients etc.

    What does this look like in the context of a sustainable environment?

    Depending on yr political/social outlook that will be a long and diverse spectrum.

    • weka 8.1

      it's a good question. I followed the threads back thorugh the Bill itself, which referenced a UN human rights resolution fm 2021. Neither defined sustainability. The UN document talks about sustainable development 👀

      https://www.legislation.govt.nz/bill/member/2023/0007/latest/d2617613e2.html?search=y_bill%40bill_2023__bc%40bcur_an%40bn%40rn_25_a&p=1#LMS927218

      https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3945636?ln=en&v=pdf

      I googled the UN definition and got this,

      In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

      https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/sustainability

      If we then apply that to the environment, it might look something like,

      Nature is meeting the needs of the present ecosystems without compromising the ability of future ecosystems to meet their own needs

      Implicit in that are these principles,

      • sustainability is something that nature does
      • sustainability is inherently about systems
      • sustainability is directly related to the future or ongoing time

      The definition fails though. Because it centres humans. If we say sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, there will be a bunch of people who think oh wind farms and hydroponics. Or biodomes. Or Mars. Or transhumanism. Because deep in humanity now is the idea that we are separate from nature.

      Whereas if we take our cues from nature eg the soil example, and extend that into systems thinking, we get the snapshots like food webs,

      IN addition to KPIs that we can measure as outputs, there are principles. I once wrote this definition of sustainability (the ability to sustain itself, in Latin, hold from below),

      1. Sustainable: this refers to whole systems that are designed to maintain themselves in a good state over time by:
        * being renewable largely within the system (the system produces its own resources rather than importing them from other landbases)
        * being non-extractive (the system doesn’t remove remove more resources or fertility than are being generated)
        * having built-in ways of reintegrating or reusing any waste that is produced (rather than relying on landfill mentality)

      https://thestandard.org.nz/what-is-this-regenerative-agriculture-thing-anyway/

      • gsays 8.1.1

        You outline some great pointers and direction of travel.

        I am left with the feeling that no political party is going to be the leader on this. So many of our primary producers are locked into a system that has banks and Big Ag calling the tune.

        The change, again, has to be us as consumers waking up to the fact that every dollar we spend is a political decision, a vote for the future we want. Till cues stop forming at drive-thrus, we cease to give the supermarket duopoly the massive profits their shareholders enjoy, the pollies are powerless.

        Maybe schools are where these closed loop food systems can be implemented but I see a staff of teachers that already have their plates full (boom boom) dealing with curriculum changes, truancy, pupil (societal) behaviour etc.

        Perhaps this is where retirees, volunteers parents can be effective. Facilitating, mentoring and supervising a garden to plate system. We could also bring the 4 or 5 primary schools and intermediate under this umbrella.

        I now work at a big High School as a caretaker. I see Gilmours, Bidfood, Coca-cola and vege wholesaler trucks arriving two or three days a week to supply the hostel and tuck shop. Similarly Fonterra trucks taking away what is produced.

        This school has two farms, a Hort block (16 braised garden beds), chooks, orchard, apiary etc but to the best of my knowledge it is all done along conventional lines. Curriculum and teacher gardening politics would be restraints.

        The different school departments are silos. Its a shame that the Home Ec. youth aren't using the produce from the hort gardens to provide the school lunches and preserving, pickling, jam and chutneying the rest. Unfortunately the majority of the harvest comes at a time when they are all on their summer holidays. Yay for the caretakers!

        Time is a precious commodity and we all have other calls on our time.

        All a bit scatter gun for a Sunday but I see so much potential, how to help a big, largely conservative (by that I mean resistant to change) organisation to see how it can demonstrate a radically different future (reminiscent of a not long ago past) that is sustainable and uplifting.

        Maybe there are some teachers/former teachers that have thoughts on stumbling blocks/opportunities.

        Phew.

        • Robert Guyton 8.1.1.1

          "Maybe there are some teachers/former teachers that have thoughts on stumbling blocks/opportunities."

          That's me 🙂

          Presently, our environment centre is co-managing a large "market" style garden along with the local high school on school grounds. Between us, we employ a young local woman to manage the garden. She works several hours a week. The environment centre volunteers help at times, and also with the establishment and maintenance of the neo-forest planted beside the vegetable gardens. It was initially hoped that the produce would be used as the basis for school lunches, but the system didn't allow for that, so much is given away or sold in order to purchase materials needed for the garden; composts etc.

          I have begun/ been involved in a number of school-centred projects and know there are pitfalls, such as those you describe, gsays. My view would be that schools are not viable places for such projects, on the whole. I know there are some successes in the country; the best of them seem to be where the students are Māori or Polynesian, so far as I can see, perhaps because of the wider kaupapa of such schools.

          That said, garden projects in schools can be exciting and rewarding while they are in operation and children can benefit greatly from being involved with plant care. Many of those projects fall over, it seems, but that exposure to gardening for young children can result in a love for the plant world when they get older and that's a very valuable thing, imo.

          • gsays 8.1.1.1.1

            Thanks for yr insights, Robert.

            I realise I sometimes can become a bit excitable by the potential in something and not heed the barriers/resistance/other's value systems.

            I agree with you about the 'planting of seeds in the young' and that manifesting later in their lives.

            Possibly a start is a scheme like you outlined and then encourage it to grow.

            It is such a flaming waste to have all these unnecessary, highly processed, fossil fuel based, unhealthy inputs and what is created in the school wasted/ignored/sold.

            The other by-product of a school providing, sharing and eating together is that community and culture are strengthened.

            • Robert Guyton 8.1.1.1.1.1

              Those quick-hit, high-impact experiences for children might be the best investments, from the point of view of the adult wishing to effect change in the community and the environment and for the children themselves. Long-term maintenance and security of "on the ground" projects such as school or community gardens are always challenging, from the out-set on; securing permanent ground, avoiding rates etc. I'm a great believer in the power of story, be that written, spoken, acted, danced or played and can see the opportunity for storytellers with a plant/growth/care focus, to reach children's awareness; at schools, fairs, markets, and, dare I say it, in libraries 🙂 I would add that where real plants and living materials/entities are part of the story experience, the effect/impact on young minds would be, imo, greatly enhanced. Puppets, especially shadow puppets, are powerful vehicles for story-telling 🙂

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