how very appropriate

Dear all, I briefly want to apologise for the lack of reading material over the last few weeks, and explain why this happens to frame what this post is all about.

So about 5 weeks ago I started studying Law at Bristol University for the first time. Yes, it’s much more difficult and time consuming than I had thought, or even planned! Bang goes most of my time basically, hence my lack of time to write. You’ll be glad to hear however that the last month hasn’t been totally steeped in legal jargon and visits to the library. There is an amazing group/society called the Bristol University Sustainability Team (BUST) who are doing some really exciting things. I’ve got stuck into projects such as getting allotments for all of the 10 halls of residence, fruit trees planted around campus to provide free and seasonal food for students to pick, the 350 day of action (see photos below), and an amazing project called Foodworks which is where a team of us go out skipping during the week, collecting chucked out and unwanted (but still perfectly good) food from supermarkets and other retailers, then we get together and cook it all up once a week, and distribute it amongst the homeless in Bristol. Check out their site to get involved.

Anyway, in my legal studies I have actually come across some knowledge that will definitely benefit any campaigning I do in the future-all related to the power struggle between the “independant” courts system (judiciary), Parliament (legislature) and the Government (the executive). Bear with me on this one it’ll all make sense…..

Broadly speaking there are 2 ways of seeking redress from the wrongful actions of a Government:

1) political

2) legal

The 1st is in some cases far more powerful than the 2nd. For example, the MP’s expenses scandal-was every MP in the frame taken to court? Not atall. The pressure of the media coverage and the rebuke of their party leader was enough to send them crawling back to parliament, cheque book in hand to repay all their superfluous claims.

However, there are cases when the best course of action is legal. And that’s because you are maybe seeking damages for an event that happened specifically to you at the hands of the council or a public official (e.g policeman) because the political redress of media coverage and an official apology would a) not be enough and b) might not, by itself, be enough to change the situation for future incidents. (In courts the doctrine of president is a powerful one-basically if you receive a landmark verdict in your case, it will go on to be an authority used in any subsequent cases in courts lower down and it’ll be used as guidance and possibly a marker of where to aim for because the facts are the same.)

However, politics also relies a lot on things called ‘conventions’. These are rules developed through time that create expectations on how members of Parliament and Government should behave for fear of the political fallout and head shaking that would go on in their circles, as a result of bypassing one. These are not laws, they’re not enforceable in the courts, they’re simply an unwritten code of conduct. An unwritten code of conduct that is not legally binding or recognised in court, is one that can slowly change over time to move with the times; I’m also sure that it’s something that can be interpreted differently by different people, so that most people’s interests, unless the complete opposite of the convention, can be accomodated in some way.

It’s here I introduce why this is an interesting thought to bear in mind.

This last week, after the 5 days of UN climate change negotiations in Barcelona, newspapers all over have latched on to a number of important and influential people who’ve all been spouting some very dangerous bullshit. Excuse my french.

And that is that Copenhagen, as it’s likely to fail anyway, needs to look to agree a politically binding treaty rather than a legally binding treaty. With a lack of time and a real need to get something out of the much-hailed Copenhagen talks in December, the hope and desire to succeed of the last month or two, has been surplanted by a very clever get out clause.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen and US chief climate negotiator Todd Stern were the first to say that only a “politically binding” agreement can now be achieved.

The UK have just jumped on the bandwagon too-with Ed Miliband coming out publicly saying that he thinks only a political deal can be done in Copenhagen-even though he has been optimistic up until now the way he sees it the treaty will need to be “a meaningful political track with strong numbers committed by all countries”, but it won’t be legally binding. At the same time the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (the panel that advises the UN negotiations on the scientific side of things), Pachuari, has said: “They’ll have to be binding, and there will have to be some provisions for penalties for those who don’t comply with the targets, because we’ve seen that with the Kyoto Protocol [of 1997]. A lot of parties are way behind even the commitments that they accepted [as part of the Kyoto Protocol]. So we really can’t allow that to continue in the future, and this agreement will have to be binding in every sense of the term.”

So do you see the problem?

An agreement that is only politically binding will never actually be binding; in the years of negotiations, the reason why 14 years on we only have a framework for international action is because the process relies too heavily on a political process to resolves a scientific situation-yes all the science and solutions may require very politically thorny and important issues, such as donations of money from one country to another to help them adapt- but the point is that the negative side of politics is the ONLY reason why we are in the situation we are in now, who’s to say that will ever stop if we don’t put our foot down now?

To illustrate my point, there was massive contention recently within the European Union because Gordon Brown said the EU should donate the 50 billion Euros they finally agreed on, as soon as possible, whereas other heads of state in the EU argued against this because they felt too exposed by outing all their cards on the table at once. Brown, to his credit argued it would increase the likelihood of a big donation from countries like the US and Australia if they felt they weren’t the only ones who might give. As you can imagine, if everyone plays their cards close to their chest and refuses to disclose their figures for the fund, it’s all about who’ll jump first? And will everyone else follow? Unfortunately political manoeuvring dictates the progress of these talks.

Apparantly a senior government source said: “The key question has always been: will you or won’t you get numbers? Just because you’re not getting the legal bit doesn’t mean you won’t get numbers. And we are hopeful of getting meaningful numbers.” BUT, even if you have numbers and responsibilities down on paper, as has been shown by the failure of the Kyoto protocol to enlist any real action on targets for emission reductions, it just won’t happen.

Why? Because not only are there no legal ramifications for not doing what they’ve said they will; there are no political ones either. The general public and the media are barely interested in the fact that the UK will not meet it’s LEGALLY BINDING European Union renewable energy targets for 2020! How can it be ‘politically binding’ when there is no public outcry or inbuilt ‘convention’ which would mean the embarrassment would be enough for them to act?

Politically binding is mere greenwash. The problem is such that there are NO conventions in place to cause an outcry in political circles, and public concensus on this issue is so non-existent as to prove no risk at all so it’s a mere blip on their reputation-radar.

So what can you do?

Write to Ed Miliband, write to your local MP, write to your MEP, and insist they call for Ed Miliband and the Dutch Government who will lead the talks in Copenhagen to demand more from the countries involved, and to expose the true meaning of a politically binding deal-don’t let them off the hook. (You could even call them up!)


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