Legal reform to protect future generations

Richard Parncutt 2013

Richard Parrncutt ICMPC 2012
Since ancient Rome, our legal systems have aimed to maintain social order and protect individual rights. On the whole, they have been successful. One might even say that the history of law is one of humanity's greatest success stories.

Today, something is happening that never happened before. Both these goals are threatened by economic globalisation, which has for the first time established a clear causal connection between the actions of rich countries and the suffering of poor countries. The suffering currently is mainly about poverty. Increasingly, it also involves global warming.

I am not a lawyer or a legal scholar, but I do know that in modern industrialised countries the law suffers from some fundamental problems that have become particularly evident in an age of global warming. The law
primarily enables citizens to defend their own rights. It ignores altruism and the natural environment. You cannot defend the rights of people in foreign countries, or future generations. You cannot defend the climate, or species that are threatened with extinction. We are told that "everyone is equal before the law", but in many cases that is clearly not the case. Instead, those with more money are "more equal" - reminiscent of Orwell's Animal Farm. Those who can afford the best lawyers tend to win cases. The law is often driven more by economics than human rights. In extreme cases, financial interests are given preference over human lives.

The rights of the bottom billion, now and in the future, can only be effectively protected if there is constitutional change in industrial countries to correct these problems at the highest level. Do legal scholars and politicians care about this? If so, where are the proposals? Where is the public discussion?

Here's an example. If Poland can completely abolish the death penalty to satisfy Protocol 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as it did in 2013 (and thank god it did, if there is a god), why can't the same convention or similar documents be changed to stop hundreds of millions of present and future people in developing countries from being effectively sentenced to death by hunger, preventable disease or curable disease, with a certain probability? These people really exist. Their deaths are really happening.

Acute poverty could be eliminated and global warrming brought under control in two decades if we invested a few percent of GDP in global development and alternative energy. We are not doing that. Instead, we are behaving as if
that money, which we can easily afford, is more important than the rights of a billion people.

The most reliable way to stop such selfish and arrogant behavior and such shocking neglect of human rights at the highest level is to change the constitution.
Industrial nations have constitutions that regulate power at the highest level and oblige them to fulfill their most important moral commitments. Global warming is threatening the foundations of societies and nations. Constitutional texts regulate those foundations. Why don't we change our constitutions to tackle global warming? 

Every national constitution was a response to the challenges of the time in which it was written. Things have changed in the past few decades, centuries and millennia. Our constitutions must be changed accordingly.

Of course this is unrealistic. There is no need to remind me. But it is even more unrealistic to steer the world toward unprecedented disaster. Later this century, one or more positive feedback mechanisms could cause the global atmospheric temperature to rise even after humans stop producing greenhouse gases. After that, there will be no turning back. Which kind of "unrealistic" would you prefer?

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