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Climate One

Monday, June 7 at 2:00 pm

Should Nature Have Rights?

In the last several years, a growing number of countries and places within the United States have tried to establish legal standing for natural ecosystems.

"The concept really posits that the way that we envision a person having particular rights and standing to sue in case somebody harms you, that that can be extended beyond human persons to aspects of what we would describe as the natural world and ecosystem: a river, a mountaintop, a national park, whatever the case may be,” says Rebecca Tsosie, a Regents professor of law at the University of Arizona.

In 2017, New Zealand granted the Whanganui River the full legal rights of a person. India also recently granted full legal rights to the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, and recognized that the Himalayan Glaciers have a right to exist. In the United States, those efforts have been more complicated, and frequently overturned by courts.

Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, a lawyer associated with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, says the rights of nature concept has moved from an “unthinkable” idea a few years ago to now exploring the details of “how would this actually work? What are the legal mechanisms by which this works?”

He says those mechanisms will determine whether the rights of nature becomes a paradigm shift or “simply recuperates a system that is ultimately destroying the earth on which we depend.”

For example, a legal person usually has the right to sue and be sued.

“Should ecosystems have that same set of personhood rights, or should it be different? I think that we should be very careful about the idea of ecosystems being able to be sued or being able to have liability,” Schromen-Wawrin says.

Decades ago, Carol Van Strum’s legal battle opposing the use of herbicides in her local national forest eventually led to a ban on aerial herbicide spraying on national forests across the country.

More recently, she and others in Lincoln County, Oregon, organized a measure banning the use of aerial spraying of pesticides on corporate timberlands, using the rights of nature argument. Voters passed the measure in 2017 but the timber companies immediately challenged it in court. The judge ruled that state law preempted the local ordinance.

Van Strum’s group is appealing the decision.

“[The judge] did not allow the river system ... to intervene against the timber companies, but she did give a little speech saying she thought even though nature didn't have rights now, it should and will,” Van Strum says.

Speakers:

Rebecca Tsosie
Regents Professor of Law, University of Arizona

Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin
Attorney

Carol Van Strum
Writer & Activist

To listen to the audio of “Should Nature Have Rights?” on Climate One online, please click HERE.