Journalist Silver Donald Cameron was answering questions after showing his film on green rights at Sackville’s Vogue theatre on Monday night when Roy Ries spoke up about suing the federal government to save the planet.
Ries, who helped lead the fight against shale gas fracking in New Brunswick, mentioned a case in Oregon in which 21 young people are suing the U.S. government for failing to do enough to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Ries said he’d personally like to see a similar case in Canada taking the federal government to the Supreme Court for its failure to protect citizens under Section 7 of the Charter of Rights, which guarantees the right to “life, liberty and security of the person.”
“I think the government is vulnerable there,” Ries said, “but we haven’t been able to build a coalition that would unite behind that initiative.”
Following the Dutch example
Silver Donald Cameron agreed that challenging the federal government in court under the Charter would be a good idea.
In his film, Green Rights: The Human Right to a Healthy World, Cameron shows that when 900 citizens in Holland sued the Dutch government for not doing enough to limit greenhouse gases, the court responded by ordering the government to cut emissions by at least 25 per cent within five years.
“The Dutch went to court on the basis that the state has an obligation to protect the welfare of its citizens,” Cameron said. “That’s not environmental rights in the narrow sense at all, that’s a broad right and we’ve got the same thing here.”
Cameron acknowledged, however, that building a coalition to organize and finance a Supreme Court challenge can be difficult in a big country like Canada with scores of environmental groups scattered widely across the country.
Millions of lives at risk
During an interview later, Roy Ries said a Supreme Court challenge would need to emphasize that climate change puts lives at risk all over the world.
“It is so urgent that we act immediately to shut down the fossil fuel driven economy in order to save millions and millions of people in the world,” he added.
“It requires a group that’s willing to raise enough money, and it’s not a lot of money, a hundred thousand dollars would do it, but you need a group that can assemble the scientific evidence of the threat,” Ries said.
In 2014, the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance launched its own lawsuit against fracking.
But Ries says he believes that such provincial lawsuits wouldn’t be necessary if a national coalition of environmental groups could win a climate change Charter case in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Town council support
Meantime, Sackville Councillors Megan Mitton and Bill Evans, who watched Cameron’s green rights film at the Vogue, said afterwards they were impressed by the number of victories environmental groups are winning all over the world including the one by the anti-fracking alliance here in New Brunswick.
Councillor Mitton said, however, the film shows how much work there is left to do.
“It also made it clear just all the different roles that different citizens can play,” Mitton added.
“So there are people who maybe run for office, like me, like Councillor Evans. There are people that are out there on the highway, people willing to get arrested, and then there are the lawyers that are in the courtrooms,” she said, adding it’s important for people to take action on behalf of the environment.
“When you do that, good things can happen,” Mitton said.
For his part, Councillor Evans said Cameron’s film demonstrates the power of small groups of committed people fighting for the public good in countries where laws guarantee the right to clean air, water and food. (The film points out that those explicit “green” rights are not legally guaranteed in Canada or the U.S.)
“I realize in Canada, we have the inverted pyramid in terms of you have the corporations at the top, the individuals and then the group, the collective down below,” Evans said. “I think it should be the other way around.”