Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Silencing Dissent Via the Courts (No Climate Free Speech, Part 4)

A British academic wants an international court to declare climate skeptics wrong, once and for all.

Sands’ presentation begins 9 minutes in and ends shortly past 56 minutes

Last week, a three-day conference took place in the UK attended by a “key group of the worldā€™s leading judges, lawyers and legal academics.” Pompously titled Adjudicating the Future: Climate Change and the Rule of Law, its Twitter hashtag was #ClimateCourts. Some of its events were held in the very room in which UK Supreme Court decisions are delivered.

The Supreme Court has a YouTube channel where you can watch law professor Philippe Sands argue, at that conference, that the International Court of Justice (which he describes as “the principal judicial organ of the United Nations”) has two choices: “consign itself to irrelevance” or join the fight against climate change.

I always thought a court was supposed to be a neutral, entirely-above-the-political-fray trier of facts. But the 21-page text version of Sand’s speech repeatedly says it should also raise public consciousness (pages 8, 10, 11, 19). After all, there must be at least three people on this planet who haven’t yet heard about the climate threat.

On page 10, for example, Sands talks about courts informing “the development of an international public consciousness on matters of global concern” and then, in the next sentence, declares that “international courts and tribunals are one amongst many actors that occupy the large space in which global public consciousness is formed.”

Sands is also fond of the word authority. Bemoaning “legislative inertia” (p. 18), he seems intent on achieving, via court fiat, what political leaders accountable to the electorate have so far declined to do. On five occasions, he talks about the immense authority with which an international court decision would be imbued. Facts are one thing, he says, but facts that “have the special authority of the law to back them” are uniquely legitimate (pages 12, 14, 15, 19).

Much like the 20 American academics who want to silence climate skeptics by threatening them with criminal investigations, this British academic wants to silence dissent via an international court ruling that says skeptics are wrong.

The day after Sands’ speech, the Guardian ran a news story under the headline World court should rule on climate science to quash sceptics, says Philippe Sands. It began this way:

False claims from climate sceptics that humans are not responsible for global warming and that sea level is not rising should be scotched by an international court ruling, a leading lawyer has said. [bold added]

The text version of Sands’ speech doesn’t adequately capture what he actually said. Starting at the 39:30-minute point on the video, here’s what you’ll hear:

It is one thing for the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] to come to such conclusions as a matter of its opinion. It’s quite another for an International Court of Justice to give them the authority of a judicial determination as to what the facts are and what the scientific evidence is.

…As I noted at the outset, there is a broad emerging consensus on many of these factual matters, but they do remain subject to challenge in some quarters, including by scientifically qualified, knowledgeable and influential individuals. And the courts could play a role here in finally scotching those claims.

One of the most important things an international court could do ā€“ in my view it’s probably the single most important thing ā€“ is to settle the scientific dispute. A finding of fact on one or more of these matters…would be significant and authoritative and could well be dispositive on a range of future actions that are needed, including in the conduct of negotiations. A finding of fact by the [International Court of Justice] would be of great authority in proceedings before other international courts and tribunals, and before national courts also. [bold and red font added]

Did we catch that? Sands wants a court to settle the scientific dispute. Fully aware that qualified individuals hold contrary climate opinions, he – a non-scientist – wants a court to finally scotch those claims. As he reads the tea leaves, the verdict is predictable in advance. At this moment in its history, he believes, the International Court of Justice will deliver the sort of climate change ruling he considers “helpful.”

It’s unlikely that such a development would significantly increase awareness amongst a public that has been bombarded with climate scare stories for the past quarter century. But it would undoubtedly be red meat for activists who already insist that skeptical climate views are outright lies and propaganda. Since such a ruling would carry weight in unexpected places, a tidal wave of employment persecutions and myriad lawsuits might well follow.

What chance will a science teacher with a non-mainstream view of climate change have at an employment hearing once the world’s highest court has declared her views to be non-facts? How many more young journalists will avoid thinking for themselves after a court has ruled that X is climate gospel and Y is climate heresy?

Science academies need to inform lawyers such as Philippe Sands that the courts are not – and can never be – adjudicators of scientific truth. Going down this path will bring both science and the law into disrepute.

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