Climate Champ Arthur W. Galston—Coined Term “Ecocide,” Ecocide As International Law? Climate Champion Polly Higgins, Vanuatu Asks ICC to Make Ecocide a Crime

by | Dec 13, 2021 | Podcasts, The Climate Daily

Remembering climate champ Arthur W. Galston—who coined the Word “Ecocide,” plus can ecocide become international law? Climate champion Polly Higgins, and tiny nation of Vanuatu asks the ICC to make ecocide a crime.



Today we celebrate Arthur W. Galston, the American biologist who first coined the word in 1970. Ecocide—It’s “destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action.” Before him, people didn’t have a simple, powerful way to describe human-based destruction of Nature.

It all started with some research Galston, did experimenting with the plant regulator called, Triiodobenzoic Acid. He discovered, that in the right amounts, Triio… made soybeans flower and grow faster than normal. He also discovered that in too high concentrations/quantities Triio made the plants shed their leaves.

Scientists militarized that aspect of his findings and created Agent Orange, a super powerful defoliant, which also contains cancer-causing dioxins. Agent Orange was used to tremendous effect in the Vietnam War, much to Galston’s chagrin.

Once he discovered how the military had Frankensteined his research, Galston protested in interviews, letters and academic papers. In 1970, after a trip to Vietnam, he described the environmental damage wrought by Agent Orange. He pointed out that the spraying on riverbank mangroves in Vietnam was eliminating “one of the most important ecological niches for the completion of the life cycle of certain shellfish and migratory fish,” and calling it Ecocide. 

Why does Arthur W. Galston and his creation of the word “ecocide” matter to us? Well there’s an old saying in the positivity movement, “If you can name it, you can claim it.” Under the current system of justice globally, an abstract concept is hard to prosecute. Ecocide made the concept concrete—one with consequences that are prosecutable.

DEEPER DIVE: Stop Ecocide Foundation Docs, Yale News, Wikipedia



Since the popularization of the term “ecocide” by Arthur W. Galston in 1970, forward-thinking members of the global community have attempted to codify it into international law.

For example, then Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, in a 1972 UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, spoke explicitly of the Vietnam war as Ecocide. The Stockholm Conference focused international attention on environmental issues perhaps for the first time, especially in relation to environmental degradation and trans-boundary pollution.

India’s Indira Gandhi and Mr. Tang Ke, leader of the Chinese delegation, also called for Ecocide to be an international crime. So a Working Group on Crimes Against the Environment was formed. In 1973, International Law professor Richard Falk proposed an international convention on the crime of ecocide.

That was adopted in 1978, but was restricted to the prohibition of military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques. Twenty years later, in 1998, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted.

The ICC was established by the Rome Statute. It’s the permanent, independent TRYbunal, based in The Hague, that’s designed to hold accountable those who commit genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute, relates to ecocide. It’s a crime to: “Intentionally launch an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause…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”.

Why does this timeline of ecocide becoming international law matter to us? One, to highlight how long it’s taking to get us where we need to be so that TWO, we can work collectively to make the law real and with teeth.

According to the website, only Russia, Kazakhstan, KER GHIZstan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldov and Armenia have ecocide laws; offenses in each nation are punishable with imprisonment of 10-40 years.

DEEPER DIVE: Ecocide as a Crime?, UN Treaty, EcocideLaw



Given those nine countries were all former members of the USSR, and given Russia and its satellite states are not traditionally known for their climate consciousness, and are considered by many as developing nations, it’s surprising and heartening that ecocide is codified law in their countries.

It was the late, great Polly Higgins who discovered that the Rome Statute we just talked about, had originally included ecocide as the fifth international crime under the ICC’s jurisdiction, alongside the four of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression. But ecocide had been dropped at the final drafting stage, reps from the Netherlands calling the definition of ecocide too vague.

Higgins spent the rest of her life working to see this “missing” crime reinstated. Who is Polly Higgins and why does she matter to us?

Polly Higgins was a lawyer and environmental advocate. Her climate influences her meteorologist father and artist mother, the Austrian environmental artist/activist  Friedensreich Hundertwasserm and the European ecology movement.

Higgins claimed to have had an epiphany one day, after working on a personal injury case. She said that looking out a courthouse window, it occurred to her, “The earth is being injured and harmed as well and nothing is being done about it.” In other words, she thought, “The earth is in need of a good lawyer.” So she became Earth’s attorney.

In 2010, Higgins proposed to the UN that ecocide “leads to resource depletion, and where there is escalation of resource depletion, war comes chasing behind. Where such destruction arises out of the actions of mankind, ecocide can be regarded as a crime against peace.”

In 2017, knowing the governments of developed nations were too intertwined with fossil fuel producers, she worked instead with the small nation of Vanuatu to build a case for ecocide against Royal Dutch Shell.

Polly Higgins died in 2019 of cancer, at the age of 50, before she could see her work come to fruition.

DEEPER DIVE: The Guardian, Wikipedia, The Scotsman, The Ecologist



As Jeffrey stated, Polly Higgins died before the independent preliminary examination into climate ecocide she launched under the auspices of Vanuatu foreign affairs minister, Ralph Regenvanu in 2018 concluded. The goal of the examination was to look at whether the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, Ben van Beurden, and the CEO of Shell Nederlands, Marjan van Loon, could be prosecuted for ecocide, if such a crime is ever put in place.

Well, we can report that as of last week, progress is being made. Last week, Vanuatu was joined by Bangladesh and Samoa at the Hague. There, during a virtual forum at the annual meeting of the International Criminal Court’s 123 member nations, the three countries advocated for criminalizing environmental destruction. 

Said Elly VanVliet, honorary consul of Vanuatu in the Netherlands, “The consequences of climate change have major implications for the full enjoyment of the human rights of present and future generations, including generations unborn.”

Pope Francis, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and more than a dozen countries, including Mexico, France, Sweden and Canada, have expressed varying degrees of support for the international initiative. Earlier this month, Belgium’s parliament passed a resolution expressing support for both domestic ecocide legislation and the international effort. 

Tuiloma Neroni Slade, a former judge at the ICC and a member of the drafting panel, told attendees that an “historical moment” had arrived for ecocide. “For small, vulnerable countries, there is little other option. Ultimately, it is a rules-based global order and the rule of law that provide the most effective protection.” 

Thanks to the efforts of Polly Higgins and organizations like Ecocide Lay, evermore environmental advocates, lawyers and policymakers are drawing attention to the effect that environmental destruction has on international peace and security, placing ecocide within the realm of concern of international criminal law.

The annual meeting concluded inconclusively re: the Rome Statute’s amendment to include ecocide as the fifth major atrocities crime. We’ll keep you posted.

DEEPER DIVE: StopEcocide, ICC, ICN, Wikipedia