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Green Victimology - Who are the Victims of the Climate Crisis?

In this article, Eleanor Meehan discusses the concept of “green victimology”, and the focus on the victims of environmental crimes such as illegal wildlife trade and environmental harm. She writes of the challenges in defining and prioritising these victims, and the difficulty of legal implementation of green victimology being fully integrated into criminal law.

‘Victimology’ may seem like a complex and slightly confusing term, but in reality, it’s a pretty simple concept. It has been defined as the study of the causes of crime, or more broadly, harm, its consequences, and the relationship between victims and offenders. So, what’s this got to do with ‘green victimology’? This just relates to victims of environmental or ‘green’ crimes, which includes the illegal wildlife trade, the improper collection, transport, recovery or disposal of waste, and the production of ozone depletion substances to name a few.

Pretty simple so far, right? However, applying this in practice to the modern world has its difficulties, especially when we’re asking who defines a victim of environmental crimes, and are all victims affected equally?

Environmental protest. Image credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

Who, or what, are green victims?

When it comes to thinking about victims of environmental harm, our first thought may go to victims of extreme weather conditions, such as the Australian bushfires, and floods in Pakistan. The topic of ‘climate refugees’, a term to describe those who have lost their homes and livelihoods through floods, drought or other environmental harms, is becoming more common/These people are still, however, referred to as the ‘world’s forgotten victims’. This is because we tend to perceive climate change as an abstract concept, something that we can only see on maps or in scientific research papers. The real, devastating effects of the climate crisis are happening right now, and yet many people still view it as a future risk.

One of the hardest aspects of gaining ‘environmental justice’ is that it relies on subjective and often self-defined definitions of victimisation. Such as the question, how do we formally identify the victims of environmental harm when local and national leaders themselves do not acknowledge the victimisation of those that they govern? This has led to an ongoing tension between non-human and human victims of environmental crimes or harm, with non-humans rarely being seen as worthy of attention. We seem to have created a hierarchy of victims, and, by extension, how worthy we believe victims to be, or if we acknowledge them as victims at all. This dictates how much attention and support they are given.

But, as we know, environmental victimisation is not only a human experience and often the natural world is forgotten as it cannot ‘prove’ itself as being worthy of help. Describing wildlife, nature, or the environment itself as a ‘victim’ is a very abstract idea, yet the severe and wide-spread harm that has been caused to our world by humanity cannot be ignored. The question must be asked: who should be held accountable?

Firefighters tackling extreme wildfires, heightened by climate change. Image credit: Mikhail Serdyukov on Unsplash

What should we do?

To try and give some options on how to answer this complex question, we should look at the current arguments.

The most significant ongoing argument is that environmental harms committed against non-humans should be treated with the same severity as human victims, especially regarding legal proceedings. The main example being the ‘Stop Ecocide’ campaign. This campaign focuses on the legal definition of ecocide, stated as the “mass damage and destruction of ecosystems, severe harm to nature which is widespread or long term”. They want to see ecocide added to the International Criminal Court, which so far includes genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. This would make ecocide an arrestable offence, where those causing harm can be criminally prosecuted, and would start a shift away from only using methods of suing or fining corporations, who often budget for this possibility, and does not cause any significant damage to their business.

Global Witness wants crimes against the environment to be recognised internationally because it would not only act as a deterrent against the most harmful acts committed against the climate, and by extension those most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis, but would also hold symbolic value. The main benefit being that it would send a “clear message that the culture of impunity with regards to environmental destruction is over”.

However, it is not too wrong to assume that any attention given to victims of environmental harm and climate destruction is much more likely to be given to humans, who will be perceived as more of a priority for legal protection and social awareness. It is therefore difficult to believe on a practical level, when even certain human victims of environmental harm are ignored. For example, climate refugees are not recognised in international law, and non-human victims will be given significant attention in the future. And as previously discussed, because defining the environment or nature as a victim is so difficult, along with measuring the harm they experience, ecocide would be challenging to implement from a legal perspective. As Rachel Killean, a senior Lecturer in Law at Queen's University Belfast argues: “If you think about all the parts of the criminal prosecution, you need to have an individual – so who’s the individual that’s responsible for ecocide? There needs to be intention – so how do you prove intention for the destruction of a territory? All these different things that build up a criminal trial become really complicated when you’re thinking about ecocide.”

In addition, this change cannot be created by the ICC alone. Killean adds that “meaningful environmental restoration in the aftermath of ecocide requires a whole host of participants, including national governments and corporations, who may not be willing to cooperate”. This can make it difficult for the ICC to demand changes on an international scale without the support of other prominent and influential people and organisations.

Plastic pollution littering our oceans. Image credit: Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

So overall, the prospect of green victimology being applied to criminal law and the legal protection of non-human victims is not looking all that likely at the moment. But this is not to say that it will never happen, or that we should give up on the hope of establishing climate justice for all those affected, human and non-human alike. In summary, the less international protection that human victims of environmental harm gain, the less protection afforded to non-humans, and vice versa. The climate crisis is a shared crisis, which calls for shared, collective responsibility for all those that are harmed. It is therefore in our own interest to understand all environmental/climate-related crime and its causes in order to protect its victims, and hopefully, in the future, this belief will become less of a theoretical ‘study’ of victims, with slightly confusing terminology, but a reality that creates positive change and protection.

About the author: Eleanor Meehan is a Criminology graduate from Lancaster University. She has a keen interest in the relationship between climate justice and social justice.

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