Interview with Tom Kerns
Music plays… opening bars of “My City Was Gone” by the Pretenders.
Hello and welcome to Turn the Tide, a new radio show produced on the central Oregon coast for KYAQ.
Turn the Tide hopes to inspire listeners to engage in environmental betterment. Overarching topics include conservation, green living, social justice, and activism. Turn the Tide suggests that we ask ourselves every day: what can I do to contribute to positive change?
My name is Laren Leland, but you can call me Leland. I’ll be your host. As way of introduction I’ll tell you that I moved here during the summer of 2017. I’m a concerned citizen and environmentalist. I work as a local real estate broker and I live up Yachats River Rd on Blossomwood Farmstead. Our farm is dedicated to native bee conservation and permaculture. I’m sure we’ll get into more detail on those topics in future shows.
Today I am grateful to have Tom Kerns as my guest. We’ll be talking about his work on the Declaration of Human Rights and Climate Change.
But before we get to the interview, I’d like to read a few excerpts from the declaration to give you an idea of what it is. You can also find a link to full document on the web site for this show.
The Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change starts with a comprehensive list of previous declarations that this one is based upon. It includes but is not limited to: the United Nations Charter; The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
It goes on to list the agreed upon basis for this document. Here are a few as a sample: Recognizing that human beings are part of the living Earth system, Recognizing the climate destructive and ecocidal results of assuming human separation from nature, Recognizing that science confirms the threats of climate change to the Earth’s systems and its multiple life forms, and many more.
Then, the last part outlines 24 rights of humans and other living systems. The first three include:
- Human rights and a profound commitment to climate justice are interdependent and indivisible.
- All human beings, animals and living systems have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound Earth system.
- All human beings have the right to fairness, equity and justice in all climate resilience, adaptation and mitigation measures and efforts.
Thank you for hanging in there with me through that long description, and now that we have an idea what the declaration is… let me introduce you to our guest, Tom Kerns.
I’ll start by reading part of his bio from the Center for Human Right’s web site.
Dr. Kerns is author of Environmentally Induced Illnesses: Ethics, Risk Assessment and Human Rights (McFarland, 2001). He has lectured at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva on human rights issues in HIV vaccine research, and he has served as commissioner on the New Zealand People’s Inquiry into Aerial Pesticide Sprays Over Auckland (2006). Tom also serves as a Board member of Beyond Toxics, and of Concerned Citizens for Clean Air. He is on the Steering Group for the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on the Human Rights Impacts of Fracking and is a member of the Drafting Group for the Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change, which is of course what we are talking about today.
Listeners might be surprised that Thom is our neighbor, he lives right here on the Central Oregon Coast.
Leland: Thank you for being here today Tom.
Tom: My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.
Leland: Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit more about your background… you were a professor at North Seattle College?
Tom: Yeah, yes, so my background is in teaching philosophy. I went off to college wanting to be a lawyer. I had read books about Clarence Darrow, Clarence Darrow for the defense, and I imagined myself being like that. *chuckle* And then I got to college and started reading books… philosophy books just captured me. That got me interested in philosophy and I went to grad school at Marquette and then got teaching jobs and my last 35 years — the longest one — was at North Seattle College. I taught a lot of bio-ethics there and a lot of human rights and environment stuff.
Leland: What was your favorite subject to teach?
Tom: Oh, it changed over the years. For a long period of time, probably 10 to 15 years, it was philosophy of religion. I just loved that course. And then bioethics caught my fancy. It was partly… in the beginning, bio ethics was clinical ethics… like what people do, physicians, clinicians’ responsibilities, and end of life beginning of life stuff, and then bio ethics started to branch out into public health ethics. It became less focused solely on clinical stuff. So that is what got me interested in a human rights approach to health issues and public health issues.
Leland: Have you always considered yourself an environmentalist?
Tom: No, no, not at all. *laughs*
Leland: How did you come to that?
Tom: I got sick. I got chemically sensitive about 20 some years ago. Suddenly you start noticing all sorts of things in the environment that you hadn’t noticed before, chemicals and stuff. So I started reading a lot about that, and with that — you can’t help but become interested in the environment. That was my introduction to it and then the more you learn about environmental stuff the more fascinating it becomes. It just grew from there.
Leland: Did you grow up with a deep connection to the natural world?
Tom: Sort of. I enjoyed hiking, camping, and fishing. I grew up in Eugene. The McKenzie river is right there and I just loved floating in the McKenzie. Flyfishing. Somebody taught me how to tie a fly when I was about 12, I spent a lot of time doing that.
Leland: So moving more towards the focus of this conversation, why do you champion approaching environmental issues from a human rights perspective?
Tom: Yeah, that’s really kind of important. There’s a lot of reasons. First of all, any time you’re going to argue or urge people to do something or not do something you need facts and values — both of those. You turn to the sciences (social sciences, physical sciences, geological sciences) for the facts and then you have to marry those facts to some sort of values. The nice thing about human rights values is that they are universal, they are accepted broadly all over the world. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, it was signed by virtually every nation on Earth. It was endorsed by representatives of everybody basically. I like that. That means that if a court makes some judgement based on human rights here in this location, it can have application in other locations in the world too.
Leland: So it’s a universal basis…
Tom: And another thing I like about human rights is that they are so minimal. They are sort of a moral floor: the right to the security of persons, the right to not be tortured, I mean that’s not really asking much of a government to protect those kind of rights. They are the absolute minimum, so when you hold governments to respecting human rights you are really holding them to the lowest of moral standards. And the other thing I like about human rights is that they have a grounding in morality.
Leland: So then you were working on and have completed, with a committee of people, the Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change. I’ll have a link available so that people listening can read it, but in the meantime can you give us a brief description of what it is?
Tom: Yeah, it’s first of all about climate change, which is… I hear people say and I kind of agree with them, that it is the moral issue of our age. But it’s not getting talked about much, over dinner tables and in conversations. You think back to the Vietnam War — that was a moral issue of that age — and it was being talked about all the time, you could hardly, you couldn’t escape it really.
Leland: Why do you think it is that people aren’t talking about it more?
Tom: I’m not really sure. I think in this country, well this is the one country in the whole world that has a political party, or part of a political party, that denies that it’s even happening. So it’s a political issue in this country and that may have squelched conversation, maybe. I think another reason is that it is just so huge that people can’t imagine what they could possibly do. So better to ignore it than just be stuck in that stressful position of knowing you’ve got a huge problem and you can’t do anything about it, or don’t know what to do about it. One of the things this Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change does is lay out, clarify, what the obligations of governments are to people, living people, and future people and says what rights people have, and what rights ecosystems have, and what moral obligations states and other beings like corporations have.
Leland: And, as you just mentioned, it mentions ecosystems, what other non-human elements are included as far as entities that have rights?
Tom: Yeah, well of course one of the things that has happened in the last several decades is that corporations, that have been recognized as persons for a long time by the law, are now also claiming rights as persons. So, what this declaration does is, it’s got three sections, one is substantive rights, one is procedural rights, and one is duties that persons have. We very carefully laid out in the first two sections on rights that human persons are the ones who have rights, human beings, natural beings, and ecosystems have rights. Then when we get down to the duties section, it’s all persons. So that includes states, governments, corporations, trusts, and any other entity that is recognized as a person before the law has duties, not rights, they have duties. Human persons, ecosystems, and nature have rights. That was pretty important to us. *laughs*
Leland: And this declaration also builds on previous declarations?
Tom: It does, yeah. There’s a whole body since 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came out, and since 1947 actually when the Nuremberg Code came out on the protection of human research subjects, in that time there have developed a whole body of human rights law including a current one, one of the most recent ones is the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, so we included all that of course. So, the preamble of this declaration lays out all the human rights documents and treaties that this is based on.
Leland: I really appreciate that it spoke specficially about Indeginous peoples, animals, and a lot of underrepresented communities.
Tom: Very much, including future people. It’s sort of funny to say they have rights, but there has developed a body of law and a body of thought around human rights that says future persons also have rights, so we were really clear about that.
Leland: Great. And in case this is a new concept to some listeners, can you tell us what environmental justice incorporates and how it is included?
Tom: Well, environmental justice… the reason we differentiate those two things in the US is because we have legal standards in the US for treating groups of people differently based on sex, or heritage, or ethnicity, or other things. We have laws that say you can’t discriminate against people like that. So, in the environmental dimension, environmental justice is saying you can’t discriminate against people based on anything, including how many resources they have available to them, you can’t discriminate on any basis. So that’s environmental justice and that’s one of the human rights standards that needs to be respected environmentally, and of course it’s not a lot.
Leland: No, that’s a major criticism of the environmental movement, is that sometimes it comes off as very white and elitist and leaves out a lot of people.
Leland: How do you envision this document leading to positive change? How can it be put into action and what sort of ramifications do you think it might have?
Tom: Well, legally we don’t know because it’s the beginning. In human rights practice you begin with a declaration and then that declaration, or some version of it, eventually a group wants to make it a treaty or a convention or something that is actionable, that’s operational. A declaration isn’t operational, so you know at some point we’re hoping that it would be taken up by groups that would say it needs to be operationalized into treaties. So, that’s that side of it. On the other side I think one of the main things that can be done with it is to display it. People should be able to — they can — they can print it and just put it up on a wall in their office, you know, it’s available in poster size and it’s available in a little hand out trifold size, and it’s available on a single sheet.
Leland: Do you need help with distribution?
Tom: Absolutely! The people that are working on this are 350.org on the central coast here.
Leland: Okay, so if listeners are listening and they want to do something to help they should get in touch with 350.org in Newport and see how they can do that.
Tom: Yes. It’s on Sunday afternoons… I can’t remember which Sunday it is…
Leland: I think it’s the first Sunday of each month, but I will make sure to include that information.
Leland: In addition to Climate Change, I know that is in the title of this document, do you see this being applicable to other situations?
Tom: That’s interesting, we are — another thing that I am working on is an International tribunal on human rights and fracking and climate change and so this document will be used in that tribunal by prosecution side, arguing that governments have a responsibility to protect people and communities against violations of human rights from fracking and from climate change, so it will be used in that context. I think down the line it’s going to be used by climate change activists, they’re going to say, “look at here, these are the standards to aim for — minimal standards — this isn’t asking very much of governments.” Fortunately, there is also human rights and constitutional rights legal case on right now, several of them, by Our Children’s Trust in Eugene. Every way that they can be supported, people ought to support them.
Leland: Great, I’ll get the information from you for that too.
Leland: Do you have any additional advice for people who are concerned about the environment who want to help:
Tom: Speak up, I guess. The nice thing about a document like this is that people can show it, they can have it and hand it to people and say, “look at this, you ought to put this up in your office.” One of the things we did, and we’re going to continue to do, is we’re going to governments — like we went to Yachats City Council and asked them, “you guys ought to endorse this. You ought to display it in the council chambers and you ought to incorporate it as part of your city policy.” They deliberated about it for a meeting and decided yes! So, Yachats is the first government anywhere in the world to endorse… it’s got lots of endorsements from human beings and from organizations… but Yachats is the first government to endorse it and include it as part of city policy.
Leland: Well, that’s great. I hope it spreads much further!
Leland: Is there anything else you want to add about anything else you are working on now?
Tom: Just the tribunal, which is a huge thing.
Leland: Yeah, I hope that we can catch up about it later, next year. It’s going to be happening, I believe, in April?
Tom: It’s International, so it’s going on all over the world and it’s going to be taking place online, Oregon State University is hosting it. It’s going to be May 14 – 18. So people will be able to watch and participate from anywhere.
Leland: Great, thank you so much for talking to us today Tom.
Tom: My pleasure, thank you.
Leland: Well, that was Tom Kerns speaking with us about the Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change. If you’d like to have a chance to help distribute this document please come to a 350.org meeting. 350.org is a non-profit, it’s also dedicated to environmental activism. These meetings are held at 3pm the first Sunday of every month at the South Beach Community Center in Newport. (EDIT: please check 350occ.org for updated meeting information.)
We still have a bit of time on the show, so I’d like to share a piece of my writing with you. I know a lot of us here on the central oregon coast are concerned about the environment, so I offer this in the spirit of inspiration.
How to be an environmentalist…
Read as many books as you can on all of the following topics: natural history, environmental justice, indigenous culture, and biology. Read more. Read with friends. Give the books you’ve read away. Start a book club.
Pick a subject. Choose a cause. Be a champion. Learn everything you can. Read the books again. Go to lectures. Meet your local experts. Watch lectures by international experts.
Lose yourself in the trees. Get pulled under cold, powerful ocean waves. Forget to breath because of the stars.
Support organizations that already exist. Volunteer your time. Join a group. Start a project. Design t-shirts. Make stickers. Spread the word. Teach classes. Raise funds.
Take political action.
Keep plants, not as decorative objects, but as companions. Expand your empathy.
Realize that in our culture it is radical to believe all species have a right to thrive.
Go outdoors. Pick up garbage. Plant a tree. Plant a forest. Learn about new species of all kinds. Notice how everything is connected in more ways that we will ever know. Foster a deep connection to sacred places. Realize all places are sacred.
Stop buying things that you will later store in a garbage dump.
Think about the workers. Consider the farmers. Remember the animals. Care about them all.
Change your life. Research where your food comes from. Eat less meat. Quit sugar. Stop buying processed food. Avoid toxic chemicals.
Give up plastic. Use less fuel. Vote with your dollars. Own your privilege. Examine your needs and your comfort. Downsize.
Have less kids, or better yet, foster and adopt.
Help refugees and those displaced from climate disasters. Believe in peace.
Grow your own food. Nourish yourself. Plant an herb garden. Grow native plants. Learn to treat yourself with home-grown medicine.
Protest, but also protect your love for humanity. Challenge your own hypocrisy.
Wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “if the government would subsidize organic, soil-building farming instead of chemical agriculture so many problems could be solved!” Remember in the morning that chemical companies control our government.
Let dirt touch your skin. Relieve yourself, occasionally, in something other than pure drinking water.
Say out loud that you identify as an environmentalist. Scream it. Tell someone at a cocktail party. Worry that you sound elitist. Explain that it’s more than protecting wild spaces; it’s everywhere: in people’s homes and offices, in our cities… though harm is quite unevenly distributed. Doubt if you’ve done enough to earn the right to self-identify as such. Remember that it is important to speak. Wish that more people would identify this way.
Stop entirely from time to time. Feel yourself hurtling through this badly damaged world.
Wonder if we should create a documented mental illness for people who want to have so much more than others.
Lead a campaign. Write articles. Publish a book. Start a movement.
Know there is a spectrum from harm to healing; all of our actions exist on it.
Do all or none of this, but the bottom line is: love our world and do something to show it.
Thank you so much for joining me today at Turn the Tide and please support our local radio station, KYAQ. Thanks!
Music fades back in… remainder of “My City Was Gone” by the Pretenders plays.