Climate Change, Environmental Pollution and International Criminal Law

The long-term worldwide abuse of the environment is predicted to have significant consequences.


Climate change is a heated topic in the world today. Peaceful and violent protests are occurring around the globe to effect change in policies and laws that regulate and determine how humans interact with the environment and the capacity to which we are legally allowed to harm it. This article looks at existing law, domestic and international, that criminalise environmental pollution.

During wartime

Within the arena of International Law, Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states “intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause… widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated” constitutes a war crime. However, in order to be a war crime, there is a requirement of an actual war.

Australia’s recognition of the International Criminal Court is enshrined in the International Criminal Court Act 2002 (Cth), a federal law which applies over every state and territory within Australia. Section 3(2) of this statute notes that “The crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC are set out as crimes in Australia in Division 268 of the Criminal Code”. Thus this international crime applies in Australia.

During peacetime

Unfortunately, within the realm of international criminal law, there is no peacetime equivalent crime. The widespread, long-term and severe damage of the natural environment that is forbidden when it is excessive in relation to a military advantage in wartime, is permitted for the pursuit of profits during peace. As such, there have been such environmental disasters where thousands of animals and people have died as a result.

For example, the escape of gas from a plant in Bhopal, India, on the 3rd of December 1984, resulted in the death of approximately 15,000 Bhopal residents. To this day, the site of the gas leak remains highly contaminated. The Exxon Valdez oil spill resulted in 11 million gallons of crude oil being spilled into pristine Alaskan waters. This oil spill covered about 1,300 miles of the coastline. The practises used to clean up the coastline, such as aggressive washing with high-pressure water, was effective in removing oil but caused more ecological damage by killing what plants and animals remained. This spill resulted in the death of approximately 250,000 sea birds, 3,000 otters, 300 seals, 250 bald eagles and 22 killer whales. Such examples demonstrate that the carelessness of human activity, the utter disregard for the environment and humanity’s devastating capacity to affect the environment which may have profound impacts on the world during many of our lifetimes. The culmination of environmental pollution, both during wartime and peacetime, is highlighted below.

A concerning future

In a recent article in the New York Times, projections of water levels by 2050 were shown for a number of nations. These nations included Vietnam, Thailand, China, India, Egypt and Iraq. Some reports, including reports created by the United Nations, predict that global warming will force up to 150 million climate refugees by 2050. A climate refugee is defined as a person that is forced to temporarily or permanently leave their customary habitat because it has become unfit for human life. With numbers nearly doubling the predicted deaths of World War II, shifts in global security seem almost inevitable, as millions will be forced from their homes, and in some cases, where entire sovereign states are expected to go underwater, whole countries will cease to be habitable.


Post Comment