Bianca Jagger on human rights and peak oil

Bianca Jagger at a protest in London

Just as she stood up at this 2009 protest in London, Bianca Jagger says that people everywhere need to stand up for the human right to clean energy. Photo: Steve Punter via Flickr.

Human rights activist Bianca Jagger faced down a death squad in Honduras in the 1980s. Now, she’s set her sights on peak oil, climate change and polluting corporations. Jagger spoke at the ASPO-USA conference in Washington, DC in October. Afterwards, she agreed to talk to us about the relationship between human rights and energy, why Canadian tar sands oil is a bad idea and her plan for the international community to hold polluters responsible for crimes against future generations.

Why peak oil

Erik Curren: I know that you have a long and deep interest in human rights, through your foundation, and in the environment, particularly global warming. How did you get interested in peak oil? Why did you feel that it was important to speak at the ASPO-USA conference this year?

Bianca Jagger: I have campaigned in defense of human rights, social and economic justice and environmental protection for nearly thirty years.

About twenty years ago, I came across a secret US government report about Peak Oil. I was alarmed and I began to follow the subject closely. I came to speak at the ASPO conference because I believe that Peak Oil is one of the most crucial issues we are facing today.

Our addiction to oil is dangerous and unsustainable. Our oil supply is finite, and the dwindling reserves simply cannot cope with our ever increasing demand. The latest warning has come from the Joint Operating Environment report from the US Joint Forces command, released in April 2010, which warns, “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels (mb) per day.”

To compensate for the diminishing supply, oil companies have been attempting to reach reserves in deeper and more dangerous waters – often with environmentally catastrophic consequences – the recent Gulf of Mexico catastrophe is just one example. If we remain locked into an inefficient, polluting, fossil-fuel based global economy, we will exhaust the Earth’s natural resources, accelerate catastrophic climate change and cause irreversible damage to ecosystems, biodiversity and marine habitats.

Crimes against the future

Erik Curren: You are working with legal scholars to develop the concept of Crimes Against Present and Future Generations. People today, especially in the US, often seem to care only about the present, and not to worry about future generations. Would your law be a way to change that short-term thinking?

Bianca Jagger: I believe it is time to put an end to the culture of impunity, the double standards and the short term thinking that pervades the international legal system. We need to take responsibility for the legacy we will leave for future generations. As Judge Weeramantry states, “We think only of those who are alive here and now and shut our eyes to the rest of the vast family of humanity who are yet to come and to whom we owe a sacred duty. This is a ‘sacred trust of civilization’ if ever there was one.”

The Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation has been working with Professor Otto Triffterer, Former Dean of the Law Faculty of the University of Salzburg, Editor of the Commentary of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and legal experts, academics and NGOs to develop a legal definition of Crimes Against Present and Future Generations; and a legal framework that will hold accountable CEOs and managements of companies committing grave human rights abuses and environmental destruction. We advocate for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to extend its jurisdiction to cover Crimes Against Present and Future Generations (beyond those already proscribed by the ICC’s Rome Statute as Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, or Crimes of Genocide). Such crimes are “acts or conduct committed with the knowledge of their severe consequences to the health, safety, or means of survival of present and future generations of humans, and also to the survival of entire species or ecosystems.”

The BJHRF is calling for the establishment and reinforcement of new and existing binding treaties and mechanisms in national and international law, in order to protect Present and Future Generations and the environment.

I have also been advocating critical reforms to our model of development, encompassing principles of justice, respect for human rights, good governance, accountability, the protection of the environment and sustainability. We urgently require a shift in our fundamental values. Development should take into account the needs and aspirations of all sectors of society: local communities and indigenous and tribal people. The new model of development must move away from our obsession with immediate profit and growth and, instead, focus on sustainability.

A new Copernican revolution

Erik Curren: How do you think that the peak oil community in particular can help with the new Copernican Revolution that you say will be necessary for the world to transition to clean energy?  You say that it would be a mistake for peak oil people to ignore climate change, and just try to get energy from any source, no matter how dirty, such as the Athabasca oil sands. But do you also think that climate change people need to care about peak oil?

Bianca Jagger: Climate change and peak oil are interconnected. On the one hand, our addiction to oil is fueling catastrophic climate change. In addition, our desperate scramble for new oil supplies is causing grave human rights abuses. These activities contain not only immediate risks, but their long term consequences may threaten our survival and the survival of future generations.

The Athabasca oil sands constitutes one such example. According to a 2009 study by Argonne National Laboratory, it takes 4 to 6 gallons of water to produce one barrel of tar sands oil, which is 4 times more water than it takes to produce oil from conventional reserves. Moreover, producing tar sands oil, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, generates as much as three times as many greenhouse gases per barrel as conventional oil production.

The Beaver Lake Cree Nation, a small Indian community of 900 people in eastern Alberta, has filed a lawsuit against the Canadian Federal and Alberta provincial governments, identifying more than 16,000 infringements that are contributing to the destruction of the environment, the loss of traditional areas, and the decline in wildlife populations and fish stocks within their territory.

On the other hand, I believe the climate change community needs to pay close attention to peak oil.

Our only option to protect the survival of Present and Future Generations, is to embark on a new Copernican Revolution. Promoting renewable energy must now become a global and universal priority.

Death squads and turning points

Erik Curren: In 1981, when you accompanied a US Congressional delegation to Honduras, at one point you found yourself at a refugee camp menaced by government-backed militias. The way your group stood up to the death squads and helped saved the lives of the refugees is an inspiring story. What message can this experience provide for citizen-activists looking to make a difference to help our societyget off of dirty energy?

Bianca Jagger: My experience in Honduras was a turning point in my life. I realized the importance of bearing witness when innocent people’s lives are at stake, how a small act of courage can make a difference and sometimes even save lives.

Every one of us needs to be responsible for our individual ecological footprint. We must hold ourselves accountable; not only to those whose livelihoods and economies are vulnerable to catastrophic climate change, but also to those who will inherit our toxic legacy

As citizens of “rich” developed countries, our responsibility is even greater. We have been and still are the main beneficiaries of the economic developments which have led to climate change and we should act now to prevent further irreversible damage. As individuals, we must realize the impact of our daily activities on the environment and make choices that contribute to the global effort to fight climate change, whether it is to choose “greener” transport and renewable energy, cut down on air travel, or eat foods that are produced as locally as possible – we must reduce our carbon footprint.

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