Climate Change Law and Justice Revolution Reaches the Middle East and North Africa

On November 2-5, I had the pleasure of traveling to Morocco for the first time to participate in and deliver a keynote presentation at the Second Annual Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Environmental Law Scholars’ Conference in Casablanca. I attended and presented at the first installment of this important conference last year in Doha, Qatar.

When one thinks of climate change hot spots around the world, the South Pacific, the Arctic, Bangladesh, the Amazon, and South Florida may come to mind initially; however, the MENA region is rarely part of the dialogue when considering how to address the global climate crisis. And that’s why this conference is so important. In addition to shining a light on climate change and other environmental law issues in this region, this conference convenes leading scholars to discuss issues that the region faces for dialogue and collaboration on how to respond to these concerns. The conference has assembled an executive committee that works to raise awareness of and discuss responses to these issues between these annual events. A summary of this year’s conference and its outcomes is available here: The third installment of this conference is planned for Kuwait in November 2020.

There were many positives that came out of this visit. First, I was very impressed by the level of engagement from the audience after my keynote presentation on my Climate Change and the Voiceless book, which was published in October and is now available in hardcover, paperback, and kindle formats on the book’s webpage and on Amazon.

The Q&A period after my presentation was quite lengthy and the dialogue continued for much of the rest of the day. The level of interest in my books was very high, as evidenced by several realities: (1) dozens of my book flyers were snatched up quickly on the first day of the conference; (2) one student offered to pay me in Moroccan currency for the display copy of my Climate Change and the Voiceless book; and (3) all three of the display copies of my books had disappeared after the first day of the conference (fortunately, the books were located and returned to me the next day).

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the high level of intellectual engagement on the issues was the irrepressible level of interest from students, many of whom has no prior exposure to environmental law in their course work. Students approached me about how to purchase my book, how to offer environmental law courses at their schools, what advice I could offer on their ongoing research on environmental and animal law topics for their thesis projects, and how they could arrange to come to my university or elsewhere in the U.S. as a visiting student. More impressive still, their command of English was outstanding and, for most of them, it’s their third language (Arabic, French, and English). The conference offered headphones for English-Arabic and Arabic-English interpretation of the presentations, but I didn’t see any students wearing the headphones. It was my generation of English speaking and Arabic speaking scholars who were the language-challenged ones in the audience.

Another very positive tidbit of information that I took away from this conference was how environmental law education and awareness generally, and on climate change issues in particular, is already thriving, thanks in part to this conference. Remarkably, there are already 60+ environmental law masters program in the MENA region. I met a Moroccan environmental law professor at this conference who researches and teaches many of the same topics that I do at her university in Marrakesh and we hope to capitalize on guest teaching visits to each other’s universities to build cross-cultural awareness of issues such as climate change law and justice developments that can be mutually beneficial and informative when faculty and student exchange is enabled. For example, under Islamic law, I learned that a “waqf” is a concept that can be applied to promote environmental stewardship that is comparable to the use of the public trust doctrine in atmospheric trust litigation in the U.S. in the Juliana case and in related efforts. Both theories support the notion of the need for enhanced government stewardship of resources in the Anthropocene era. Another colleague I met at this conference also invited me to deliver a lecture series on climate change law and justice issues at Kuwait International Law School, which is a school that regularly engages with law schools and scholars outside the MENA region on many legal issues.

The long arm of social media also has facilitated the reach and impact of climate change law and justice information to this region. As a general matter, I despise social media. I really do. I don’t use it and have no use for it. In the U.S., I feel that it has degraded human communication, enhanced cowardice, and exacerbated the existential alienation of the human condition. But I have to credit it, at least in part, for several significant political and social developments in recent memory. First, the election of Barack Obama likely would not have been possible without it. Second, the success of the #MeToo and LGBTQ movements were significantly enhanced because of it. Third, and most importantly for this discussion, the wildfire communication of the objectives of the Arab Spring wouldn’t have been possible without it.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, a rising tide of engagement in the climate justice movement has followed in the MENA region. I learned from an environmental policy colleague from Egypt that youth in Egypt are very concerned about the climate crisis yet they are not willing to make lifestyle sacrifices to promote climate mitigation. Much like U.S. youth, they blame government inaction for the climate crisis. Their approach is more understandable, however, because as a developing country their economy is still growing and they need to rely on GHG-intensive activities to advance economically. They are frustrated with Western countries like the U.S., who can do more to help diminish the global climate crisis but self-centered economic interests and misinformation campaigns on the climate change issue in the U.S. have led to our current state of federal inaction. My Egyptian colleague’s research confirmed that Egyptian youth see the environment as “instrumental” and not “intrinsic” in value. Again, this viewpoint is understandable in a developing country. The U.S. and other advanced economies in the Western world need to engage their political leadership to facilitate the transition to an ecocentric regulatory paradigm in the Anthropocene era so that we can view humans as part of the larger ecosystem that we share with nonhuman communities, rather than the masters of it, and adjust our legal frameworks accordingly. For further discussion of that topic, I encourage you to read my Climate Change and the Voiceless book.

Social media certainly has propelled the climate justice movement on a global basis. From climate displacement in all regions of the world to highly publicized youth climate movements, social media is facilitating this counter storm to respond to the devastation that climate change is wielding throughout the world. Some areas of the world, like the MENA region, don’t appear to Westerners as part of this storm of climate change impacts and counter storm of mitigation and adaptation responses. But a global problem like this one knows no limits, even in areas of the world that seem to be removed from it with different economic and social priorities. International climate change treaty negotiations have reached all corners of the world, including a significant meeting and outcome in the MENA region in 2001 that produced the Marrakesh Accords. Marrakesh again served as host for the world for the COP 22 meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement in November 2016.

The conference was held in an impressive brand new building on the campus of Hassan First University in Settat.

A common frustration I experience when traveling to developing countries is the limited number of vegan and vegetarian dining options, and Morocco was no exception to this general rule.  The culture has an overwhelmingly meat-based diet and I was the only vegan/vegetarian of all the speakers at the conference, most of whom were from the MENA region. The messaging on the virtues of a plant-based diet has not reached here as readily as climate justice messaging, but I’m confident that it’s coming soon. In just 2019 alone, the awareness of and access to plant-based options in restaurants at all levels of dining in the U.S. and other Western countries has skyrocketed and this cultural awareness will spread quickly to the developing world in the years ahead. Most importantly, awareness of the linkages between our meat-based diet and climate change is spreading quickly; again, just in the past year there have been significant developments in this regard in political arenas in the U.S. and internationally.  But I must say that the vegetarian options that were available in Morocco were delicious, and the world-famous couscous and Moroccan mint tea were quite memorable. It will be nice to see more vegan and vegetarian options on menus throughout Morocco and the MENA region in the years ahead.

On the topic of the need to limit our individual carbon footprints in our daily lives, I remain mindful of the carbon footprint dimension of my frequent air travel. And if I were pursuing this travel to secure a great tan in multiple beach destinations, I would feel ashamed of my self-indulgent and avoidable contribution to this pressing global crisis. But the most important tools we have to combat the climate crisis are information and inspiration. Every time I deliver a book talk or presentation in my speaking engagement schedule, I witness the positive buzz of energy that flows from the information and the corresponding inspiration to take action that I am able to inspire with conveying this information. Regardless of how bleak the world around us becomes, there is no substitute for human connection and the power of hope.

We always have the choice to see the glass as half empty or half full, and the effectiveness of our response to challenges in our lives is significantly influenced by how we understand and approach these challenges. If my role does nothing more than shine a light on the climate crisis challenges that we face and provide some hope and support on how to address them, I can rest content with the knowledge that my positive inputs in confronting these challenges overshadow my carbon footprint, at least for now. As technology improves to ensure effective transmission of remote participation in some of the conferences to which I am invited, I am happy to consider those options more fully in the years ahead. But at least for now, remote participation significantly compromises the quality and impact of what I am able to share. 

It’s the one-on-one conversations before, between, and after the formal agenda of presentations that always seem to have the greatest impact, and that’s hard to replicate remotely. I plan to make video recordings of my presentations available on this blog and on a YouTube channel to inform and inspire others on these issues without traveling. I’m already learning from colleagues around the world that they have located and used my video recorded presentations to help them impart information and inspiration in their educational efforts on these topics in their countries, which is very encouraging to hear.

As a closing note, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to travel as much as I have in fall 2019 to promote my new book and speak on climate justice and animal law issues.  The impact of these speaking engagements was enhanced by virtue of the rising tide of awareness of these issues in the U.S. and globally.  In many ways, fall 2019 involved a “perfect storm” of synergistic developments that have catapulted climate change law and justice to center stage in a unprecedented manner that has raised the global community’s awareness of and receptivity to this information. In other words, if ever there was a time to spend a lot of time on the road engaging audiences with these messages, this was the semester to do it.  Just think of all the significant climate change-related developments that have occurred within just the past few months (and this is non-exhaustive list)

  • California wildfires
  • Hurricane Dorian and the climate displaced populations in the Bahamas
  • Greta Thunberg’s iconic speech to global leaders
  • Climate crisis protests everywhere (including Jane Fonda regularly getting arrested in the U.S.)
  • Youth climate litigation exploding around the world as we eagerly await the highly anticipated decision in the Juliana case any day now
  • The IPCC’s Report on the looming global devastation from climate change impacts to oceans and frozen areas

So, to the extent that I am able to reach audiences around the world in any way on these pressing issues during this critical moment in time, I plan to keep talking.

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