We must rediscover our commitment to the foundations of democracy
Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council recognized the universal human right to a clean and healthy environment. This should not be shocking or problematic for any government or institution, since the elements of that right have been agreed in international law for decades, some since the early 1990s or the early 1970s, and others since the founding of the United Nations in the mid-1940s.
The Constitution of the United States promises to secure for future generations “the Blessings of Liberty”. Increasingly, it is understood that neither liberty nor its blessings can be secure if the natural systems that sustain life are collapsing, if food security is no longer possible.
The Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy, and Finance reports that as a result of converging and compounding crises (COVID, the illegal invasion of Ukraine, food supply disruptions, the “OPEC+“ market-rigging agreement and resulting price spikes):
incomes are falling,
national debt distress is spreading,
hundreds of millions more people are facing hunger, and
successful inclusive development is getting more expensive.
The prospects for sustainable development to support an enduring expansion of human freedom, and the rights and dignity that come with it, are faltering in the face of overwhelming pressures.
The independence we celebrate on July 4 is political independence from imperial rule, but also the instruments of self-government that allow for a new kind of system, in which the law must answer to the humanity in each of us. We celebrate of Juneteenth as a national holiday, to mark the occasion when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, 157 years ago, and 30 months after it took effect, when at last we became a nation of free people.
The life of our nation since then has not fully honored that principle, so it falls to each of us, and to our institutions today, to make sure we do. Each of us depends, for our freedom and wellbeing, on the actions others take to shape a system that honors our humanity.
This is why so many people are troubled by the morally, legally, and practically incoherent Supreme Court rulings issued in late June. In the Dobbs case, the controlling majority opinion lies about the content of the 1st, 5th, 9th, and 14th Amendments, and behaves as if the 4th, 8th, 13th, and 19th don’t even exist.
The Court assigned to itself an unprecedented power, grounded nowhere in any nation’s laws, to selectively deny full legal personhood to specific groups. In the Dobbs case, that group is all women. Legal experts say it is the most shocking power grab since the secession of states run by enslavers and will lead to legal chaos and fractiousness the republic cannot tolerate. Already, several states are trying to institute new laws they intend to enforce inside of other states.
The Court’s ruling in West Virginia v. EPA similarly selects specific groups as privileged and denies basic protections to the vulnerable. Despite having ruled that the EPA does have legal authority to regulate global heating pollution in 2007, 2009, and 2014, the Court’s majority makes the counter-to-fact claim that the EPA erred by seeking to phase out coal in the power sector.
The EPA sought to reduce emissions; the coal industry actively refused to comply with legal standards to prevent harm to the public. The result of the ruling—which offers no remedy and seeks to limit the people’s right to protection by the Executive or redress by the Judiciary—is that interests that have defied legal requirements for decades are granted the unique power to impose unaccountable harm, and those who suffer that harm are effectively abandoned by the Court.
In the 1770s, it was a novelty for a nation to be based on the idea that every person is of equal consequence. In the 2020s, a nation that cannot actively honor the humanity in every person forfeits legitimacy and capability. Inclusive processes make it far easier to solve the great challenges we face; on July 4, 2022, the question of whether American institutions recognize this remains, painfully, yet to be answered.
Here, I must add a personal note: In my work, I often hear from people around the world that they feel the impact of shocks to the American system of laws. If powerful people abuse their position, if harm to the everyday person is treated as immaterial, the corrupting effect on everyday exercise of power elsewhere can be immediate. Violent abuses ensue, and corrupt authoritarians are emboldened. If the United States stands up for human rights, however, for the irreducible importance of even powerless and marginalized people, this signals an entirely different political calculus, and abuses can be more easily resisted and reversed.
The project of self-government is never limited only to one’s own neighborhood or personal experience. There are consequences to meeting, or failing to meet, universal principles of common decency, mutual protection, and structural empowerment. We can secure the blessings of liberty, in our time, only if we recognize that global responsibilities do exist, and we, as the sovereign citizen managers of a great democracy, are called to achieve all we can for the good of all.
The costs of climate damage are rapidly rising. During the June round of UN Climate Change negotiations, while 196 nations discussed the urgency of finance for overcoming loss and damage, the US experienced six extreme weather disasters in one day, each made worse by ongoing climate change. Though talks failed to produce a new fund, one thing was clear: no nation is safe from the worsening consequences of our collective impact on natural systems.
Americans offended or worried by the sudden rise in food prices should look abroad and take note of the grave conditions facing much of the world. Hundreds of millions are facing chronic food insecurity, acute hunger, or near-famine conditions. A background driver of this destabilization is destabilized climate patterns and degraded ecosystems. A smart investment in a better future can change this background dynamic and set us on a course to safety.
Citizens’ Climate International organized a global effort to bring the voices of stakeholders to leaders of the G7 countries, urging them to act to steer us to safety. That effort resulted in 1,196 stakeholders and advocates across 80 countries sending letters to the G7 leaders, asking them to:
Rapidly redirect financial flows away from fossil fuels and towards an equitable and resilient future.
Negotiate the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty to support a rapid, equitable, and managed phase-out of fossil fuels.
Finance successful adaptation and resilience measures to keep vulnerable communities safe from preventable harm.
The G7 announced, after their Summit in Bavaria, the creation of a Climate Club of nations, built on three pillars:
Advancing ambitious and transparent climate mitigation policies to reduce emissions intensities of participating economies on the pathway towards climate neutrality…
Transforming industries jointly to accelerate decarbonisation, including through taking into account the Industrial Decarbonisation Agenda, the Hydrogen Action Pact, and expanding markets for green industrial products.
Boosting international ambition through partnerships and cooperation to encourage and facilitate climate action and unlock socio-economic benefits of climate cooperation and to promote just energy transition.
The June UN Climate Change negotiations also finally opened the process of work for implementing “non-market” cooperative approaches to achieving global climate resilience, under Article 6.8 of the Paris Agreement. That means the G7 effort to achieve climate transformation can be instrumentalizad through everyday cooperative measures in every country. Real-world policy, investment, and action, should speed the transition to climate-safe practices, through:
Standards and regulations, Climate income policies, Carbon-related border adjustments, and ‘Floor price’ measures;
Accounting and avoidance of emissions and of damage to ecosystems, Nature finance, Fiscal rescue funding, ‘Labeling’ and tracking of aims and impacts;
Food systems innovation measures, Data integration, Transition assistance, and Multilateral coherence in policy and practice.
This July 4, the United States and the world are facing a test of practical solidarity and operational legitimacy:
Will we honor the founding principle that every person is of equal consequence?
Will we actively insist that administration of our laws hold legitimacy and sustain the republic, by recognizing the full legal personhood of every living human being, as the Constitution requires?
Or will we let slip the existential core of our democracy, trusting that unaccountable power brokers will decide for us?
We know what we celebrate today. We know it is our duty as citizens of a free republic to stand with all people who face the abuses of tyranny, whether at home or abroad. We know it is our national spirit to identify and to creatively tackle the biggest challenges, even when they require a complete overhaul of the status quo. We know we can confidently undertake such challenges if we keep the freedom, rights, and dignity of every person central in all our efforts. We know our cause is the no-nonsense optimism that recognizes and acts against complex and evolving threats.
We are in this together. Let’s be honest with ourselves and work together to steer the ship of state where we know it needs to go.
Please read these recent Living Futures pieces, outlining the context in which we are collectively working to secure democratic civic spaces and restore nature:
Future security of people & nature will depend on strong civil society, good food finance & honest economics
UN Crisis Group outlines food, energy, finance actions to reduce risk & build resilience