The Whaling Ruling: a victory for science….and the environment?

Associate Professor Charlotte Epstein considers the implications of the ICJ’s historic ruling on whaling.

This has been a very good week for science and for international cooperation. On Monday the International Court of Justice, the judiciary organ of the United Nations, the oldest and most respected international court, issued a ruling that struck down Japan’s so-called scientific whaling programme (JARPA II) for being unscientific. This, to my knowledge, is the first time an international court has adjudicated on a scientific question. We depend, of course, on the environmental sciences to tell us about the state of our planet. What is remarkable about this ruling is that, for the first time, an international court is telling a state that it cannot use science to just do what it wants. Australia, who brought the case before the court, has celebrated the victory all week. Japan, who defended itself surprisingly poorly (for someone who has watched this issue closely for over a decade), has accepted the ruling, and will likely terminate the scientific programme – although whether this is the end of whaling for Japan is a different question. But the message is loud and clear: states need to take science seriously. And remarkably, both the Australian government and the Japanese government have accepted the message fully. Science has been taken seriously, and the International Court of Justice is back on agenda, proving its ability to settle disputes between states. This has been a good week. Or has it?

The significance of whaling, as I have shown in my book, is that it is the first successful global environmental issue. For the first time in human history, there has been a global realisation that something we do is damaging our planet so badly that it just needs to stop. Of course, it is easier for some to stop than others, particularly when the something in question that ought to be stopped has long been part of cultural and dietary practices. Science has always been at stake in the whaling issue. And one of the biggest causalities of the political deadlock that has characterised the whaling issue, where pro and anti-whalers have been digging their heels for the last two decades, has been science. We need the science; only the science can tell us exactly how badly affected the whales are; and yet the science has been so misused in this area that its own credibility has been damaged.

This has also been the week where the United Nation’s top climate scientists have released the second instalment of their Fifth Assessment report, and the results are damning. Not only does it confirm that climate change is already taking place, it also states that if we continue on our current track we are heading towards an average increase of 4 degrees centigrade; which will be a disaster for this country, the hottest continent on earth. The publication of the IPCC report seems to have sparked the panic of the climate deniers, who have rushed to publish their own counter-report, the NIPCC (‘n’ for ‘not happening’?). This has brought the dark machinations of powerful and heavily moneyed so-called libertarian institutions out of the woodwork, and whilst they are mostly based in the US, these institutions have been working very hard to shape public opinion on this issue in this country.

Science is once again the battleground. The Australian government, has, this week, shown its commitment to UN-endorsed science when it comes to whales. It will be interesting to see what it does with regard to climate change and the need to act to avert it. As the whale scientists or ‘cetologists’ often tell me, one of the direst threats to our whales today is the degradation of the oceans due to climate change.

Charlotte Epstein (charlotte.epstein@sydney.edu.au) is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. She is the author of ‘The Power of Words in International Relations: Birth of an Anti-Whaling Discourse’.