Planet Watch

US signs Arctic climate declaration —with caveats

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on May 11 signed the Fairbanks Declaration, affirming the neeed for protection of the Arctic's climate. The move, at the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting held in the Alaska city, came after much speculation that the US would decline to sign, or even use the occasion to announce its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. The Fairbanks Declaration notes the importance of the Paris Agreement, while stating that "the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average." The US getting on board was apparently the fruit of behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure. "I think we were able to push the US back as much as possible," Rene Solderman, Finland's senior adviser on Arctic affairs, told reporters after the ministerial session.

Doomsday Clock: 2.5 minutes of midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Jan. 26 moved the minute hand of its symbolic Doomsday Clock from three minutes to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. On this year that marks the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin notes (full text at PDF; links added by CountrerVortex): "The United States and Russia—which together possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons—remained at odds in a variety of theaters, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernizations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen. North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests and gave every indication it would continue to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. Threats of nuclear warfare hung in the background as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir after militants attacked two Indian army bases."

Paris Agreement on climate change takes effect

For the first time in history, governments around the world have agreed to legally binding limits on global temperature rises as the Paris Agreement (PDF)  on climate change became effective on Nov. 4. All governments that have ratified the accord are now legally obligated to cap global warming levels at 2 C above pre-industrial levels—regarded as a limit of safety by scientists. But environmentalists and other groups have said the agreement may not be enough. According to Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth: "The Paris agreement is a major step in the right direction, but it falls a long way short of the giant leap needed to tackle climate change. Far tougher action is needed to rapidly slash emissions." Greenpeace also agreed that while the agreement is a major step forward, it needs stronger force. Andrew Norton, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, further pointed out that governments would need to take measures to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable countries get adequate financing to tackle climate change problems..

UN moves to outlaw nuclear weapons in 2017

The UN on Oct. 27 adopted a resolution—hailed by disarmament campaigners as an important landmark—to launch negotiations in 2017 on a treaty outlawing nuclear weapons. The resolution was approved at a meeting of the First Committee of the General Assembly, which deals with disarmament and international security matters. A total of 123 nations voted in favor of the resolution, with 38 voting against and 16 abstaining. The resolution will set up a UN conference beginning in March next year, open to all member states, to negotiate a "legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination." Among the 57 co-sponsors of the resolution, Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa took the lead.

Police repression at Dakota Access protest camp

More than 140 were arrested Oct. 27 as over 300 police officers in riot gear—backed up with several armored vehicles and two helicopters—cleared the camp erected to block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. North Dakota's Gov. Jack Dalrymple used emergency powers declared over the protests in August to bring in officers from neighboring states.  The 1851 Treaty Camp was set up directly in the path of the pipeline, on private land recently purchased by Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the pipeline. But the land has been declared reclaimed as tribal territory by the Standing Rock Reservation under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The Morton County sheriff’s department said protesters torched several police vehicles, and that two officers were lightly wounded. Those arrested were not allowed to post bail. The sweep brought the total number arrested in the protests since August to 411. State officials have stated that they will no longer communicate with the protesters. (Native News Online, Bold Nebraska, NYT, Forum News ServiceICTMN, Sacred Stone Camp, Oct. 28; EcoWatch, Oct. 25)

Court allows Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Oct. 9 ruled (PDF) against Native American tribes, allowing construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline to move forward. The Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribes sought a permanent injunction to block construction of the 1,170-mile pipeline, which they say would be built on sacred burial grounds and would pose an environmental risk to the surrounding rivers. In its ruling, however, the court said the final decision will be up to the Army Corps of Engineers. The chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said (PDF) the pipeline will endanger millions of lives, and that the tribe will continue to fight against it. The starement also noted that construction crews have already destroyed many historic burial sites and artifacts.

Mohawk band forms indigenous legal system

The Mohawk band council of Akwesasne in Canada has introduced its own legal system independent of the country's federal system. This marks the first instance of an indigenous people creating its own legal system in Canada. While First Nation band councils have passed and enforced legislation on reserves for years, the new court framework was drafted by the community and is not tied to the Indian Act or any agreement with the Canadian government. Under the proposed legal system, justices and prosecutors are asked to enforce a variety of civil laws, while criminal matters still remain within the purview of the federal or provincial courts. The civil matters range from sanitation to property and wildlife conservation. The new system is underpinned by concepts of restorative justice, as there are no jail terms and offending parties are to use their skills to benefit the community. Questions remain as to what extent Akwesasne law will be recognized by provincial and federal courts.

ICC to prosecute environmental crimes

The International Criminal Court released a policy document Sept. 15 calling for prosecution of individuals for atrocities committed by destroying the environment. The document, prepared by chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, sets out the types of cases that the court will now prioritize, including willful environmental destruction, illegal exploitation of natural resources, and "land grabbing." The ICC has already shown a willingness to apply its authority to situations involving environmental destruction. Between 2009 and 2010, then-prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo successfully obtained arrest warrants from the court against the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, for acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among other acts, these alleged crimes involved the contamination of wells and destruction village pumps in Darfur to deprive targeted populations of water. Al-Bashir's trial has not yet commenced as he continues to evade arrest. (The Conversation, Sept. 23)

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