Planet at the crossroads

As COP25 gets underway in Madrid, we need to understand that international environmental law can save lives
Image of crosswalk near Nuevos Ministerios metro station in Madrid from NASA via Google Earth.
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On Dec. 6, this may become one of the most photographed crosswalks on Earth. If Madrid’s Sep. 27 climate strike is anything to go by, we can expect thousands to flood the area near Nuevos Ministerios metro station in Spain's capital. The Spanish cosmopolis, now more cosmopolitical than usual with tens of thousands here for COY15 and COP25 to advance climate action, is launching crosswalks like this into the global spotlight.

While anxieties about the lack of progress on decarbonization increase with each annual UN Conference of the Parties (COP) that passes, there are signs that times are changing thanks in no small part to our resolute and vocal youth. My home country of Canada, for example, has declared a climate emergency. In recent days, the EU has also declared an emergency. This is in addition to over a thousand cities that have issued declarations, many of which have established decarbonization pathways.

Relentless global climate strikes demonstrate strong political will for bold climate action among we the peoples — the ones that heads of government are accountable to. Perplexingly, despite this global mandate, many nations continue to stall or send mixed messages about their commitment to neutralizing the climate crisis and upholding Indigenous rights, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to a livable future.

However much disagreement there may be among and within nations, there is something that unites us, and that is the crosswalk. All nations have crosswalks, or concepts like it, to tell us whose turn it is to go. Crosswalks around the world may differ in design, but the values they balance are remarkably similar. In the case of crosswalks that bisect roadways, we can see the interplay of values such as mobility and public safety.

Crosswalks are physical installations to be sure, but they are also signed spaces interpreted by those who flow through them. They save lives because from a young age most of us are taught how to use them as pedestrians, and later in life how to avoid hitting others while driving.

When we travel to other countries we recognize and use crosswalks. And perhaps most importantly, there is no place where people who do not want to stop for pedestrians can go to hit them with impunity.

These pieces of civic infrastructure are as universal as the values of security and autonomy. What I suggest is that crosswalks, and the bylaws that establish them, are so consistently applied around the world, including in marine settings, that they operate as an international law would, except with tens of thousands of courts to apply the law, instead of one.

The climate crisis is killing people whose communities are being destroyed by extreme weather, sea level rise, and wildfires. There are also less sensational but equally tragic deaths, like that of the man who tries to drive his snowmobile across a lake that no longer freezes to its previous depth, or the elder who cannot afford air conditioning on her fixed income and passes in a lengthy heatwave.

Unlike jaywalking or reckless driving, one needn’t act to put one’s life at risk when it comes to the climate. For now, simply living puts us at risk, not just as individuals but as a species. Yet critics of global democratic governance argue against straightforward measures to ensure rapid decarbonization, such as an end to fossil fuel subsidies, a fully costed global price on carbon, and land use rules to protect biodiversity.

So, all we need is a global patchwork of ambitious bylaws to address these issues, right? While cities are in many ways leading the charge on decarbonizing their operations, significant greenhouse gas emissions occur outside of cities, so a more universal instrument is needed to actualize our shared values of interdependence with other species and a livable future.

Lest you doubt our ability to value other species, not just as edibles or wearables but as beings whose lived lives are critical to our own survival and who are inherently worthy of love and respect, consider the response to recent bushfires that have put koalas at risk of extinction. People living in places far from Australia are making mittens to help injured koalas heal from their burns. This is just one of many examples of humans reaching out to members of another species to help them recover from the harms of anthropogenic climate change.

People in the Netherlands making mittens for koalas harmed during Australia’s 2019 wildfire season by Quilt Shop 100.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of Earth’s carbon sinks, we’ve been driving too fast. Heads of government have thus far failed to act on the fact that we are about to drive off a cliff. Indeed, to avoid runaway climate change, emissions must peak in 2020. Now is the time to stop and put in a global crosswalk.

Christine Leclerc lives, learns, and works in Coast Salish Homelands / Burnaby, B.C. She is an award-winning author and geographer who, as Climatch founder, strives to help policymakers match governance with climate action.

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