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  • Guilherme Purvin

Decolonizing the Concept of Environmental Citizenship

Guilherme Purvin

What can the exploration of oil in the Amazon and the controversy involving the BBC and the president of Guyana tell us about the notion of Environmental Citizenship and the boundaries of international agreements?

On March 28th, an interview given by the president of Guyana on the BBC’s Hard Talk program became one of the most discussed topics in climate change debates, bringing to light the urgent issue of cultural colonialism.

In brief, the interviewer, Stephen Sackur, adopted an arrogantly professorial stance, questioning President Irfaan Ali about the surprising economic growth of our neighboring country in the past year. After raising doubts about whether the presence of oil beneath Guyana's soil would be a blessing or a curse, he asked whether it was right to exacerbate climate change by further releasing fossil fuels into the planet.

At this juncture, he was interrupted by the interviewee, who posed another question: does the interviewer (the United Kingdom) truly consider himself in a position to lecture on climate change to him (Guyana)? He reminded the interviewer that the overwhelming majority of emissions come from Northern countries, while the population of Guyana, grappling with serious health and education issues, maintains a forest spanning an area equivalent to the entire territories of England and Scotland.

Here in Brazil, leveraging some of the brilliance of Irfaan Ali's argumentation, the Minister of Mines and Energy, Alexandre Silveira, raised the stakes in defense of oil exploration in the mouth of the Amazon, publicly exposing his disagreements with the Ministry of the Environment. This constitutes a repetition of the power struggle that occurred decades ago, during the second government of Lula, between Dilma Roussef and Marina Silva.

In this context, Greenpeace launches a petition stating:

"The burning of fossil fuels worsens the climate crisis. If Brazil wants to establish itself as a climate leader, investing in the opening of new frontiers for oil exploration in sensitive areas, such as the Amazon Mouth Basin, is a contradiction that will come at a high cost!"

The exclamation point at the end is as emphatic as a table slap by another interviewer, Richard Madeley, when questioning the President of Guyana about why current generations should pay for the mistakes of their slaveholding ancestors, ironically asking: after all, what does the global south want, the royal family to build a palace in Georgetown?

All these episodes converge towards the same dilemma: the reconciliation between the construction of a true international environmental citizenship and the observance of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, enshrined in the Framework Convention on Climate Change.

What should be the most appropriate stance of an international environmental citizenship in the face of the current global scenario, entangled in issues such as:

a) trivialization of human life (the humanitarian tragedy in Palestine, Haiti, and Ukraine are examples);

b) resurgence of NATO as a military expression more than three decades after the end of the Warsaw Pact;

c) improvement of AI software for creating deep fakes shielded by the right to freedom of expression; d) erosion of hard-won labor rights throughout the 20th century and enshrined in ILO conventions?

Are developed countries adopting national policies and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change? Are they transferring technological and financial resources to developing countries? Assisting developing countries, particularly those most vulnerable to climate change, in implementing adaptation actions and preparing for climate change, reducing its impacts?

The concept of environmental citizenship was enshrined in the Rio Declaration of 1992. Its Article 10 stated:

"Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided."

Today, in the face of climate change, there is a debate about expanding this concept to encompass an international environmental citizenship.

Thus far, what we mostly see are political demonstrations, some with significant media impact, such as those led by Chief Raoni or the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. However, here we are discussing the extension of the concept of citizenship in space, not the charisma and representativeness of some important leaders in the environmental movement.

In the realm of the world economic order, these limits have long been surpassed by the market, which now refuses to be regulated even by an international body created for itself, the World Trade Organization. However, this is not proposing seeking answers through free enterprise but through the introduction of a new concept, that of international citizenship.

As is known, the scope of action of legal entities of External Public Law is theoretically very diverse. On one hand, we have Nation States, whose actions do not extend beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. Or should not extend. In the early hours of December 20, 1989, the United States, under the government of George H. W. Bush, invaded Panama to capture dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, with the purpose of bringing him to justice in the United States for complicity in international drug trafficking. The operation, dubbed "Operation Just Cause," resulted in between 500 and 4,000 deaths. It became evident in this case the exceeding of the limits of U.S. state jurisdiction.

However, we must remain within the strict realm of Public International Law, lest we get lost in political digressions and the logic of the militarily and economically strongest.

According to the teachings of Adriano Moreira,

"Sovereign collective entities are in a favorable relationship to satisfy their own interests, concerning territory, waterways or maritime areas, airspace, ethnic and cultural groups, and so forth. Regardless of the nature and origin of the values to which we subordinate the justice of their interests, it is each one that first judges, affirms, and defends that justice, eventually resorting to force, which normally takes on the nature of war against opponents in these cases. We will see the results of the age-old struggle to institutionalize the peaceful resolution of conflicts, but that freedom or right to wage war is still a characteristic, socially and politically, of the international community, regardless of the formal advances of international law, which today is oriented towards the total denial of the legitimacy of war." [ 1 ]

From the perspective of International Organizations, the scope of action is even narrower, since all actions depend on the consensus of the State members of these IOs, at least for the purpose of adhering to multilateral treaties and conventions.

The question that arises, therefore, is: could an International Organization demand compliance with the terms of a convention or treaty that was not subscribed to by a particular country? The answer is evident: under Public International Law, no.

Therefore, the limits of action of International Organizations - United Nations, European Union, Mercosur, NAFTA, WTO - really need to be overcome if the intention is to take Environmental Law seriously.

Is it possible, without the assistance of a state or world police force, to address international environmental issues that affect market interests? Here I use the term "market" to specifically refer to large international corporations. For example, Shell, Exxon, etc.

To answer this question, it is necessary to point out that the police in theocracies will act in defense of the official religion; in dictatorships, it will do what the dictator establishes; in a capitalist state, it will promote the defense of capital.

It is necessary to assess the limits of International Environmental Law. Let us take a convention in force in the country, the Vienna Convention of 1985 and the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer. This Convention is always remembered as particularly successful because its goal of phasing out the production and consumption of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) by 2000 was achieved. However, not due to concern for compliance with an international convention, but simply because the industry discovered techniques and products that were more efficient and less impactful than the CFCs used, among other purposes, as propellants in spray paint, deodorants, insecticides, etc. The solution came from the market. And International Law merely formalized in written text what was already a market trend.

Let us compare this with the Convention on Climate Change adopted in Rio/92. The CMC aims to promote and cooperate in the development, application, and diffusion, including transfer, of technologies, practices, and processes that control, reduce, or prevent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol in all relevant sectors: energy, transportation, industry, agriculture, forestry, and waste management.

The Climate Changes Convention (CCC) aims at reducing carbon emissions in the atmosphere, a goal that requires the replacement of the fossil fuel matrix, responsible for emitting CO and CO2, as well as changes in dietary patterns by reducing the production of animal protein, responsible for CH4 emissions. Do oil companies and agribusiness accept this urgent change? No! The market is incapable of accepting, even on an exceptional basis, in the face of the climate emergency, the reduction in production and consumption standards. In this regard, the late Professor Guido Soares, known for his frankness and diplomacy, when discussing the Siena Forum, stated that it was "irritating" the "arrogance with which multinational companies position themselves in relation to International Law". [ 2 ]

The market follows capitalist rationality. As Elmar Altvater points out, this is a rationality of parts and not of the whole. In the collective work "Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism", he asserts that

"The web of life's vast interdependencies are disregarded, and therefore the rationality of capitalist modernity can only be partial. In this scheme of things, interdependencies cannot be planned, they cannot be controlled. [ 3 ]

Therefore, the author concludes that

"Capitalism's rationalization of the world is based on externalization, on tapping resources and on loading the spheres of the planet with solid, fluid, and gas waste. For capital, societies and earth systems exist only insofar as they are incorporated into the world of rationality, of monetary calculus, of capitalist valorization. Capital sees only what it can price". [ 4 ]

I highlight here the following aspects pointed out by Altvater:

  • Externalization of costs;

  • Relentless exploitation of resources;

  • Generation of waste;

  • Calculation of monetary value at the expense of socio-environmental value; and

  • the relevance of society and nature limited to the perception of their contribution to economic growth and profit.

The inability to address environmental and social concerns makes it impossible to direct state policy in defense of sustainability, equity, and the well-being of people and the planet because it would result in the denial of the economic system itself as it stands today.

With the market driving the transformation of nature into commodities and emitting pollution, and with it in control of the state, it logically will not be coerced into adopting sustainable and non-impactful methods and techniques in the cycle of natural resource exploitation, production, consumption, and disposal. Course alterations will only occur within the logic of the market: cost reduction in production without detriment to revenue from consumption. This is an implacable logic, expressly fixed in the legislation governing corporations.

In this context, the category that most closely resembles that of a citizen, in the economic sphere, is that of the consumer. If we degrade the concept of citizenship, reducing it to that of a consumer who actively participates in the economic cycle, can they actually interfere in any way in changing production and consumption patterns.

In Brazil, environmental citizenship is clearly stated in the heading of Article 225 of the Federal Constitution: everyone has the right to an ecologically balanced environment. This expression is broad, encompassing not only the citizen understood as a holder of political rights (voter), but also children, adolescents, foreigners residing in Brazil or simply passing through the national territory, in short, every human being present in the country. It is a legal expression of both passive and active environmental citizenship, as it imposes on the community (and not just the State) the duty to defend and preserve it for present and future generations. In the capacity of a consumer, participating in the economic cycle, environmental citizens can even invoke compliance with the economic order as outlined in Article 170, item VI, of the Federal Constitution, that is, ensuring a dignified existence for all and promoting environmental protection.

However, the condition of citizenship is much broader than that of a consumer. In an article titled "A New International Law of Citizenship," Peter J. Spiro questions whether International Law will colonize the last bastion of sovereignty. He says that traditional International Law doctrine has little to say about the citizenship practices of states and the terms on which states determine the boundaries of that qualification. States have been free to decide who receives citizenship and under what conditions. Historically, citizenship status has been considered a matter of national self-definition. And nationality has been equated with the identity of ethnic, religious, or other sociocultural markers within territorial spaces. [ 5 ]

Therefore, as early as 2012, Ronald C. Israel proposed that the growing interconnection among individuals, countries, and economies allows us to contemplate global citizenship. Global citizens would constitute an emerging global community committed to helping build the values and practices of this community. He proposes the construction of this global citizenship through advocacy efforts, signing petitions, participating in demonstrations, and financing global causes. The author states:

"As global citizens we need to join together to express the fact that people across the planet share common views when it comes to basic values such as human rights, environmental protection, and the banning of weapons of mass destruction".  [6]

In this regard, I ask whether it is possible, within the hundreds of different internal legal systems, to consider the legal recognition of international environmental citizenship, taking into account that the very concept of citizenship presupposes equality. Are we talking about democratic regimes and recognition by the International Court of Justice? In the context of a climate emergency, are we willing to give a voice to those excluded from the production and consumption process? Will the multitude of environmental refugees be treated as international environmental citizens or as invaders, clandestine individuals, criminals? In the context of the rise of xenophobic regimes and theocracies, is it possible to speak of international environmental citizenship?

Setting aside extremes, I believe there are indeed conditions for overcoming the limits of the actions of Nation States and International Organizations through the recognition of planetary environmental citizenship, although I still believe in the importance of strengthening the UN, particularly UNEP (or UN Environment), as the most important forum for international debates on the environment. The major obstacle, paraphrasing George Orwell, is the existence of some States "more equal" than others, with the power to veto decisions supported by an overwhelming majority of the international community.

We can participate in non-governmental organizations, global action networks, international professional associations, and other depersonalized entities or movements, aiming to build international environmental citizenship and a global community that faces the organized irresponsibility of the market in dealing with climate issues, biodiversity, and human rights. Despite cultural, religious, linguistic, economic, and political differences among nations, we are the same species of life on a planet that, due to our neglect, is heading towards an irreversible process of degradation.

However, it is necessary to decolonize environmental activism. The redress of historical injustices concerns not only the anti-racist struggle but also feminism and environmentalism. A Greenpeace petition directed at Brazil or an arrogant BBC interview with the President of Guyana will not benefit international environmental citizenship or the mitigation of the effects of climate change.

It is of the utmost urgency to bring to the international debate the issues raised by Irfaan Ali and to reiterate the principle enshrined in the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Rio/92), according to which the parties must protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations based on equity and in accordance with their respective capabilities. Consequently, countries such as the US, UK, Germany, France, China, and Russia, which participated in the CMC, must take the lead in combating climate change and its effects, considering the specific needs of developing countries, especially those particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.


[1] "Os entes colectivos soberanos estão numa relação favorável para satisfazer interesses próprios, com o território, as águas fluviais ou marítimas, o espaço aéreo, os grupos étnicos e culturais, e assim por diante. Seja qual for a natureza e origem dos valores a que subordinemos a justiça dos seus interesses, é cada um que em primeiro lugar julga, afirma e defende essa justiça, recorrendo eventualmente à força que normalmente assume, nestes casos, a natureza de guerra aos opositores. Veremos os resultados da luta secular para institucionalizar a solução pacífica dos conflitos, mas aquela liberdade ou direito de fazer a guerra ainda é característica, social e politicamente, da comunidade internacional, independentemente dos avanços formais do direito internacional, hoje orientado no sentido da negação total da legitimidade da guerra”. MOREIRA, Adriano. Teoria das Relações Internacionais, 6ª ed. Edições Almedina S.A. : Coimbra, Portugal :  2008. Pág. 37.

[2] SOARES, Guido F. S. Direito Internacional do Meio Ambiente: Emergência, Obrigações e Responsabilidades”. São Paulo : Atlas, 2001. Pp. 216/217.

[3] ALTVATER, Elmar. The Capitalocene, or, Geoengineering against Capitalism’s Planetary Boundaries. In: MOORE, Jason W. (editor). Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland/CA, USA : PM Press, 2016. P. 147.

[4] Cit., p. 149/150.

[5] SPIRO, Peter J. A New International Law of Citizenship. In The American Journal of International Law. Vol. 105, n. 4, p. 694-746, pub. Cambridge University Press.

[6] ISRAEL, Ronald C. What does it mean to be a Global Citizen? Artigo originalmente publicado em 2012 e republicado no Kosmos – Journal for Global Transformation. Acess in 03.19.2024. 


Guilherme José Purvin de Figueiredo is a professor of Environmental Law. He holds a PhD and Master's degree in Law from the University of São Paulo Law School and a Bachelor's degree in English Language and Literature from the University of São Paulo's Faculty of Philosophy, Languages, and Literature. He is the author of several works on Environmental Law, including "Curso de Direito Ambiental (Environmental Law Course) (6th edition), "A Propriedade no Direito Ambiental" (Property in Environmental Law) (4th edition), and "Direito Ambiental e a Saúde dos Trabalhadores" (Environmental Law and Workers' Health) (2nd edition). He is a retired State Prosecutor of São Paulo and a writer. He is the international coordinator of IBAP and a member of the advisory board of the Association of Environmental Law Professors of Brazil (APRODAB), having been its founding member and first president.

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