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Geoffrey Palmer: How to change the world

After more than 25 years’ engagement with international environmental law, Sir Geoffrey Palmer feels that as the situation worsens, the pressures to do better increase.

Becoming an MP, and still more being a Cabinet Minister, is a wonderful education.

Among other positions, I had the privilege for three years from 1987 to 1990 to be the Minister for the Environment. 

That experience left a deep imprint on my thinking.

Climate change was inching onto the international agenda.

Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of the UK at that time, was a scientist by training. She organised a conference on the atmosphere in London in 1989 to which I was lucky enough to be invited. It was first rate and practical.

The following week there was another at the Hague in which 24 nations reached agreement on the Hague Declaration of 1989 drawing attention to the threat of climate change and calling for action.  

Then the first report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out in 1990. 

The news for the future was not good. 

Other meaty environmental issues during those years included discussion on how to save the ozone layer, the design of the Resource Management Act to achieve sustainability and combatting drift net fishing in the Pacific.

I left politics in 1990 and taught half each year at the University of Iowa College of Law, and the rest at Victoria University. 

In the United States it was decided that I should teach a new course on International Environmental Law. 

In order to do that it was necessary to put together teaching materials and it was a formidable task. 

In the end it led to a book that I co-authored in 1994, which was designed around real live problems that the students had to try and solve. 

In order to do so the students had to look at the relevant legal materials, the applicable science and particularly the applicable treaties. 

Among the topics covered were acid rain, the ozone layer, nuclear accidents, land-based pollution, pollution of the oceans, freshwater pollution, hazardous waste, biodiversity, desertification, driftnet fishing, poaching of elephants in Africa, protecting the rainforest, population control, Antarctica and a big slice on global warming.  

The common feature of all the problems was that international action of some kind was required to solve them.

This meant international law is involved and that is often difficult because sovereign states do not like being required to do things they do not want to do.

Therefore, the international legal system lacks many of the features of the rule of law that we are used to in domestic legal systems. 

Within the last month the fourth edition appeared this time the work of Professor Jonathan Carlson at the University of Iowa and me. 

It is entitled simply International Environmental Law and published by  West Academic Publishing.

There are many issues of interest to New Zealand in the new edition as indeed there were in the earlier ones. 

These include: the problems of whaling in the Southern Ocean; the Rainbow Warrior incident and how to solve an international law issue between a big powerful nation and a small nation; drift net fishing; the international regulation of nuclear weapons;  how to protect the global commons in Antarctica; and  the problems of international trade and the environment. 

After 25 years of doing work on this book and teaching courses from it I have reached a number of sad conclusions.

I believe the state of the international environment is now worse than it was when we began despite all the law, diplomacy and efforts that have been made to fashion new treaties.

Humans continue to erode the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and the quality of life worldwide.

We have known for decades that our carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions are adversely affecting the climate across the planet. 

Despite all the diplomatic work that has gone into combatting climate change there are no signs we are winning the battle.

The optimism and hope that characterised the Conference on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 have dimmed. 

One difficulty is that the international legal order is not fit for purpose when it comes to dealing with the global environmental challenges. 

The burdens of outdated ideas on state sovereignty too often prevents progressive and necessary outcomes from international negotiations. 

Many of these involve long and frustrating meetings, a waste of scarce resources and all because of the weaknesses in the international legal framework.

Humankind’s destruction and defilement of the natural environment is seriously endangering the continuation of life on this planet.

The most downloaded law review article I ever wrote appeared in the America Journal of International Law in 1992 entitled “New Ways to Make International Environmental Law.” 

But little has happened. 

The world is in desperate need of rational ecological governance.

That is the message from 25 years’ engagement with international environmental law. 

As anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said: “We won’t have a society if we destroy the environment.”

As the situation worsens the pressures to do better increase.  

We can still take action, we can still come to agreements, we can still choose to work together to make a difference. Millions of people are coming together across the globe to urge change. 

As Margaret Mead also said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

The global challenge is before us now. 

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