Polluters Must Pay

Ending the era of ecocide is essential if we are serious about climate and social justice, argues Monica Lennon.

For too long, major polluters have exploited our environment with no regard for the people and places they are harming. Consequently, the impacts of the climate and nature crisis are already being felt by millions of people around the world and will be felt even more severely by future generations. Yet those responsible for causing the most harm are rarely held to account. Left unchecked and undeterred, they continue exploiting people and the planet for their own gain, undermining responsible enterprises that seek to turn a profit without wrecking nature.

Scotland’s biggest environmental disaster occurred thirty years ago when the MV Braer hit rocks during a storm off Shetland spilling 85,000 tonnes of light crude oil into the North Atlantic. Thousands of birds perished and up to a third of the local grey seal population was harmed. Braer’s owners went on to receive more compensation than what the vessel was worth on the open market, with leaked papers later revealing it was not seaworthy. Hansard at the time of the incident records John Prescott arguing that the “main burden of such incidents is usually carried by the polluted, not the polluter.”

Deepwater Horizon is another famous example of ecocide. The oil drilling platform explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed eleven oil workers and thousands of birds, fish and mammals. The 2010 disaster caused lasting ecological damage, affecting over 1,000 miles of Gulf shoreline. BP was found responsible and liable for $20 billion in civil and criminal penalties, but charges did not result in prison time.

Big corporations and senior decision-makers continue to take risks, putting people and the planet in danger. Perpetrators of eco destruction – and we should call it out as ecocide – cannot be allowed to get away with it any longer. It’s time to make the polluter pay.

Around the world, people are organising and fighting back. Stop Ecocide International campaigns to make ecocide an international crime. Thanks to its diplomacy and advocacy work, many countries have already started progressing or advancing national ecocide legislation. This is in tandem with moves to amend the Rome Statute to make ecocide the fifth crime against peace, and prosecutable at the International Criminal Court, a cause backed by UK Labour.

Recent legal and political developments on ecocide law have taken place in countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, as well as at the level of the EU. Scotland must not be left behind in the battle against the big polluters. I have lodged proposals in the Scottish Parliament for a proposed Ecocide (Prevention) (Scotland) Bill. The launch of the consultation on 8th November has kickstarted a national conversation on using the criminal law in Scotland to prevent and punish ecocidal acts. Those who cause the most harm to our ecosystems must be held responsible for their actions.

Under these plans, Scotland could be the first part of the UK to criminalise ecocide. Prison sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years for the worst offenders are proposed, as well as financial sanctions worth up to 10% of worldwide turnover for companies, calculated over a three-year period. Liability for imprisonment would be aimed at senior decision makers. In the corporate world this would catch responsible officials such as a director of a company, limited liability partnership or another entity which is not an individual, where there is evidence that the director directly contributed to a crime.

Those who commit wanton acts of environmental destruction must face the full force of the law. This principle led visionary Scottish barrister, the late Polly Higgins, to make the campaign to criminalise ecocide her life’s work. Together with her Stop Ecocide International co-founder Jojo Mehta, Higgins argued that ecocide should be an international atrocity crime, of the same order as genocide and crimes against humanity. My proposal draws on their Independent Expert Panel definition of ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Some may argue that this bid to stop ecocide is extreme. But the enabling of ecocide is extreme, as is failing to punish the perpetrators. The sanctions are subject to consultation, but there is growing public and cross-party support for criminalising ecocide in Scotland.

Tackling those at the top is an imperative. Everyone has a part to play in taking better care of our planet, but deflection from the main climate criminals leads to fingers being pointed at individuals and communities who get pilloried for driving to work or putting their paper and plastics in the wrong recycling bin.

Unsurprisingly many people experience ‘climate anxiety’ and feel overwhelmed by the lifestyle changes that are demanded of them. In It’s Not That Radical – Climate Action to Change the World, Mikaela Loach unpacks the roots of the climate crisis to argue that the scale of the crisis has been toned down to be compatible with capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy.

While the science is widely accepted, it is seldom acted on. Inaction and delay breeds injustice. People are losing faith in political and industrial leaders to deliver a just transition and a transformed economy. Around the world, the poorest workers are disproportionately harmed by the impacts of the climate and ecological crisis. Trade unionists, youth climate activists and environmental campaigners commonly find themselves accused of being disruptive and dangerous, while the real climate criminals continue to deceive and destroy the environment.

Ecocide law is not a magic wand, but it is our best chance to protect our planet from profiteers who recklessly exploit it, with no regard for the safety and security of the natural environment. As James Connolly rallied, “Our demands most moderate are: we only want the earth.”

To have your say before 9 February 2024 and support an ecocide law for Scotland, search ‘Proposed Ecocide Bill smartsurvey’ and complete the survey.