Leo Won An Oscar! (Oh, and That Climate Change Thing)

If the rock you’ve been hiding under doesn’t have very good wi-fi, you’re probably the last person on the planet to find out about Leonardo DiCaprio’s long-awaited Oscar win. However, less discussed in media coverage of this event was the actor’s use of his precious 90 second speech to discuss climate change.

Climate change, you say? So last year. It is an issue that has not headlined significantly since talks in Paris concluded in December 2015. To sum up the talks, world leaders agreed that the temperature shouldn’t rise above 2 degrees Celsius, patted themselves on the back and went home. They then unpacked all their luggage and promptly placed “dealing with climate change” in the too-hard basket.

Whilst the criticisms of the agreement itself are too numerous to list here, the reality of climate change remains. So too does the uphill battle to encourage governments around the world to act now to mitigate emissions and minimise effects.

Most countries have been signing climate change treaties left, right and centre (okay, maybe not the right). The implications of this for states are only just being realised now. In October last year, the Netherlands made headlines as the first government to be taken to court by its own people over inaction relating to climate change. The case was ruled against the government in a landmark decision.

The case can be heavily simplified down to two main points:

1)    The Dutch government has a duty of care towards its own people to do something about climate change. 

This falls under the European Union’s Precautionary Principle, which establishes that when a consequence of a certain decision is suspected to harm citizens, the default route is to not undertake that option.

This essentially means if you think there is a chance that the thing is a bad idea, you probably shouldn’t do the thing. If the scientific consensus is that temperature rises above 2 degrees would be catastrophic, it’s probably a good idea to try and keep the rise below 2 degrees. The Precautionary Principle has been used previously to obligate compliance with significant international environmental treaties, including the Kyoto and Montreal protocols.

2)    The Dutch government was not doing enough to address climate change. 

In the Cancun Climate Change Summits of 2010, the Dutch government joined 195 other states to sign treaties which recognised the IPCC as the scientific authority on climate change. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – try saying that five times fast) has since released studies indicating that a 25% emissions reduction, at bare minimum, is required to offset a 2 degree rise in global temperatures.

These two main findings, among other legal complications, led to the decision against the Netherlands. Essentially, the Dutch government signed paperwork agreeing that a 25% emissions reduction was required. As a result, the courts ruled that the Dutch government was legally required to set that target, rather than the 17% one in existence.

Similar cases are now being launched around the world. Claims are currently being filed in state courts under the US Public Trust Doctrine, which assigns governments as the trustees of public resources, and therefore responsible for preserving them into the future. One of the problems is that climate change has been viewed as a ‘left’ issue for too long. Taking climate change to the courts depoliticises it, regardless of who is in power (which in America’s case could be a certain climate change denier whose name rhymes with “lump”).

Despite not currently featuring heavily in headlines or meaningful global action, climate change remains an important issue. Citizens all over the world are pushing for governments to do more about climate change. Like an Oscarless Leo, climate change is something talked about but not fully appreciated in the last twenty years. It’s about time we gave it the recognition it deserves.

Kylie Mathews is a third-year Communications/Economics major at the University of Western Australia and Social Media Director for the UWA International Law Club.




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