Americans are familiar with three ‘inalienable’ rights–to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Strictly speaking, nobody actually has a ‘right’ to any of them. Witness the (to-date) 100% mortality rate, full prisons and the number of prescriptions for anti-depressives. But We The People want everyone to have access to them so we call them rights.
New rights are claimed all the time. Kids in college now think they have a right to be free from unwanted speech and opinions. We even claim a right to chicken done right.
All of these are aspirational goals and should be lauded (or derided) and accepted as such. Now there are some new rights associated with the environment that are being discussed and they have a lot to do with climate change.
Do humans have a right to a pollution-free environment? It’s a new right–pollution is just a couple of centuries old, although residents of Auld Reekie (Edinburgh back in the day) and The Big Smoke (London) might push the date a bit further back. I would argue that in the world I want to see us striving for, yes. Starting from the indoor haze that kills 4 million a year cooking with dung over a primitive stove and moving straight to the inner cities of the developed world that were for too long contaminated by lead, from the people living downstream from factories to those living in proximity to the fly ash from coal mines, all of these are abuses of innocent people and should be taken care of as an urgent priority.
Do humans have a right to access to affordable energy? Again, I would respond in the affirmative. It’s another new right–energy was free but hard to get until the 1880s, at which point it spread through parts of the world leading to them being called developed. In fact one definition of ‘developed’ is having access to plentiful energy.
But if affordable energy means dung (which is free), or coal, which is a horrible pollutant, then it surely conflicts with the right previously enumerated. So should we say then that everyone should have a right to affordable, clean energy? If so, then governments will be called on to help make expensive forms of energy affordable to its citizens.
What do we do when two rights we wish to guarantee to all conflict?
We make it worse. We add a third potential right that conflicts with both. Should humans have a right to live on a planet where our species does not contribute to climate change? Certainly many activists and philosophers would say yes.
This would involve the reduction or elimination of fossil fuels for most of its current uses. And at considerable expense we could do this. We have the technology to do so today, should we choose.
This would also work in tandem with the right to a pollution free environment–or would it? It would be almost impossible to achieve without nuclear power. Is nuclear waste a pollutant in the same way smoke or fly ash are? Many would say yes. Some say the rare earths used in wind turbines and solar arrays are pollutants–does this disqualify them?
Champions of these three new human rights already fight with those favoring older, more established rights to commerce, profit, freedom from onerous regulation. But it is clear that their biggest fights will be with each other.
This means prioritizing. Which is more important? Freedom from pollution, access to affordable energy? Life without anthropogenic contributions to climate change?
Funny that this doesn’t get discussed more.