Should Harming Mother Earth Be a Crime? The Case for Ecocide
The destruction of nature might one day become a criminal offense adjudicated by the International Criminal Court.
On December 3, 2019, the Pacific island state of Vanuatu made an audacious proposal: Make ecocide—the destruction of nature—an international crime. “An amendment of the Rome Statute could criminalize acts that amount to ecocide,” argued Ambassador John Licht of Vanuatu at the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s annual Assembly of States Parties in the Hague, speaking on behalf of his government at the Assembly’s full plenary session. “We believe this radical idea merits serious discussion.”
The Rome Statute of the ICC, adopted in 1998, established four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression—all of which are not subject to any statute of limitations. Environmental activists are pushing to elevate the concept of “ecocide”—literally, the “killing of the ecosystem”—the fifth international crime to be adjudicated by the ICC. If it becomes a reality, those who commit environmental destruction could be liable to arrest, prosecution, and punishment—by a fine, imprisonment, or both.
Ecocide proponents want the law to cover the most egregious crimes against nature, which could ultimately include such massive abuses to the living environment as oil spills, illegal deforestation, deep-sea mining, mountaintop removal mining, Arctic oil exploration and extraction, tar sand extraction, and factory farming. In 2010, British barrister and environmental lobbyist Polly Higgins defined ecocide as “extensive damage … to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”
Protecting the Future of Life on Earth
In 2017, Higgins and environmental activist Jojo Mehta founded the Stop Ecocide campaign. Overseen by the Stop Ecocide Foundation, a charitable organization based in the Netherlands, the campaign is the only global campaign to exclusively focus on the establishment of ecocide as an international crime to prevent further devastation to the Earth’s ecosystems. “Protecting the future of life on Earth means stopping the mass damage and destruction of ecosystems taking place globally,” the group states on its website. “And right now, in most of the world, it is legally permitted.”
Vanuatu’s bold proposition was the first time a state representative made an official call for the criminalization of ecocide on the international stage since then-Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme made the argument during his keynote address at the United Nations environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972.
“The immense destruction brought about by indiscriminate bombing, by large-scale use of bulldozers and pesticides is an outrage sometimes described as ecocide, which requires urgent international attention,” said Palme in his address. “It is shocking that only preliminary discussions of this matter have been possible so far in the United Nations and at the conferences of the International Committee of the Red Cross, where it has been taken up by my country and others. We fear that the active use of these methods is coupled by a passive resistance to discuss them.”
The Failure of the Paris Climate Agreement
That passive resistance to discuss the immense destruction of nature at the hands of humanity has largely continued. Though nearly 200 nations have signed the Paris Agreement, designed to avoid irreversible climate change by limiting global warming to “well below” 2° Celsius, the countries’ commitments are not nearly enough. As they stand, the promises put the Earth on course to heat up between 3-4° Celsius above the historic baseline by 2100.
Although the Paris Agreement mandates the monitoring and reporting of carbon emissions, it lacks the authority to compel any nation to decrease its emissions. Considering this shortcoming, the landmark agreement has been a historic failure. This failure inspired more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries to sign a “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” declaration in January 2020. “An immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere is needed to avoid untold suffering due to the climate crisis,” the scientists warned.
Society did not heed the warning: Two years later, in 2022, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels reached a record high.
“A hundred countries say they are aiming for net-zero or carbon neutrality by 2050, yet just 14 have enacted such targets into law,” Carter Dillard, policy director of the nonprofit Fair Start Movement and author of “Justice as a Fair Start in Life: Understanding the Right to Have Children,” wrote in The Hill in April 2022.
“[T]he Paris Agreement, which itself allowed for widespread ecological destruction, is failing,” says Dillard, whose organization supports the emergence of smaller families not only to tackle environmental degradation but establish ‘fair starts’ for the children born today who must face the prospect of growing up on a rapidly deteriorating planet. “Meanwhile, in real-time, global warming is already killing and sickening people and damaging fetal and infant health worldwide,” Dillard writes. “Maybe it’s time for a rethink and a deeper approach.”
A Broken Legal Framework
One deeper approach would be to protect the natural environment through the legal system since, as the Paris Agreement has shown, non-binding commitments that are not subject to possible punishment if unfulfilled are ultimately meaningless.
“Had the protections [Palme] urged been fully adopted, our world would be a very different place today,” writes Peder Karlsson, a board member of End Ecocide Sweden, a Swedish-based network working to advance the idea of international ecocide legislation. “In Palme’s vision, an international regulatory system would have set limits to our destruction of nature, limits on human impact, limits to how one generation can take from the next.”
Higgins pointed out the illogical state of our current legal system, which shields perpetrators of crimes against nature: “We have laws that are protecting dangerous industrial activities, such as fracking, despite the fact that there is an abundance of evidence that it is hugely harmful in terms of carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, and the catastrophic trauma it can cause communities that are impacted by it.”
“The rules of our world are laws, and they can be changed,” she said in 2015. “Laws can restrict, or they can enable. What matters is what they serve. Many of the laws in our world serve property—they are based on ownership. But imagine a law that has a higher moral authority… a law that puts people and planet first. Imagine a law that starts from first do no harm, that stops this dangerous game and takes us to a place of safety.”
Ecocide Movement Growing
While the ecocide movement was dealt a blow when Higgins died in 2019 after a battle with cancer, it is picking up speed, aided not only by Vanuatu’s proposal but also by high-profile supporters like French president Emmanuel Macron, who said, “The mother of all battles is international: to ensure that this term is enshrined in international law so that leaders … are accountable before the International Criminal Court.”
Environmental protection is becoming more of a concern among the general public, many of whom take a dim view of inaction by elected leaders. A Pew Research Center poll published in June 2020 found that a majority of Americans now believe that the government should do more to protect the climate, wildlife, and air and water quality.
Three-quarters want the U.S. to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources within 15 years, according to a poll conducted by the Guardian and Vice in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. In December 2020, as world leaders marked the fifth anniversary of the Paris climate accord, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged every country to declare a “climate emergency.”
The general public is warming to the idea of criminalizing the destruction of nature, with more than 99 percent of the French “citizens’ climate assembly”—a group of 150 people randomly selected to help guide the nation’s climate policy— voting to make ecocide a crime in June 2020.
“If something’s a crime, we place it below a moral red line. At the moment, you can still go to the government and get a permit to frack or mine or drill for oil, whereas you can’t just get a permit to kill people because it’s criminal,” said Mehta. “Once you set that parameter in place, you shift the cultural mindset as well as the legal reality.”
“The air we breathe is not the property of any one nation—we share it,” Palme said in his 1972 address. “The big oceans are not divided by national frontiers—they are our common property. … In the field of human environment, there is no individual future, neither for humans nor for nations. Our future is common. We must share it together. We must shape it together.” Greta Thunberg called for a shift in our legal system regarding the environment. “We will not save the world by playing by the rules,” said the Swedish teenager who has become the face of the international youth climate movement. “We need to change the rules.”
On November 8, 2023, Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament Monica Lennon introduced a proposed ecocide bill in the Scottish Parliament that could lead to substantial penalties for those found guilty of the large-scale destruction of the environment, potentially resulting in up to 20 years of imprisonment. If passed, it would establish Scotland as the first country in the United Kingdom to implement strict consequences for environmental damage.
Lennon has initiated a consultation, set to conclude in February 2024. The government responded by confirming that Circular Economy Minister Lorna Slater will discuss the proposed measures with Lennon. Following the conclusion of the consultation phase, the bill would need the backing of at least 18 parliamentary members to advance to the next stage. The consultation is set to conclude in February 2024.