Our Campus: Environmentalist Dr. David Boyd brings his optimism to the United Nations’ ‘global library’ of human rights

While at home on Pender Island this past July, Dr. David Boyd received an email that triggered panic and celebration alike.

Boyd, an associate professor of law, policy and sustainability in the UBC Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, had been appointed as the second-ever United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on human rights and the environment — a five-year position he began in August.

“I was jubilant because it is an amazing opportunity to make a difference in the world, completely in line with the work that I’ve been doing for the last 15 years,” said Boyd, “and I had a panic attack because the magnitude of the challenge is so immense.

“We live in a world where we have multiple overlapping and interacting environmental challenges [...] and to try to address those challenges through a human rights perspective is a potentially powerful approach, but also quite daunting.”

A trained environmental lawyer and author of eight books, including The Optimistic Environmentalist, Boyd attributed his “unlikely” appointment to a happy 21st century coincidence. In 2012, during the height of the Arab Spring, a Tunisian environmental activist named Mounir Majdoub had come across Boyd’s recently completed PhD dissertation, which focused on the interactions between constitutions, human rights and the environment.

“Tunisia was writing a new constitution, a democratic constitution, [...] and [they] reached out to me to say, ‘Would you be willing to work with us and try to get some strong environmental provisions into the new Tunisian constitution?’” said Boyd, who immediately committed to the project.

“We ended up getting some really great provisions in the constitution, including the right to a healthy environment.”

Majdoub’s organization, the Alternatives Association, later nominated Boyd to his new UN position, where he plans to make enshrining that same right to a healthy and sustainable environment into every constitution around the world — including Canada’s — a priority.

“I want that right to be recognized at a global level so it can serve as a catalyst in every single country to advance more quickly towards a sustainable future that we all can pursue our hearts’ desire,” said Boyd, noting that the right includes clean air, clean water and biodiversity, among much else.

There are still significant hurdles, not least of which being “inertia” in the international human rights system. Neither the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, nor the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the same year include the right to a healthy and sustainable environment.

“Trying to bring this more recent human right into the global library of human rights is probably the biggest challenge.”

While over 100 countries around the world recognize this right, Canada has not — at least, “not yet,” according to Boyd. His predecessor, Dr. John Knox of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, worked extensively to establish the relationship between human rights and the environment, and Boyd hopes to continue to build on his “exemplary” legacy.

“[Knox] reached [the conclusion] that protecting the environment really depends on human rights, and interestingly, human rights also depend on our protecting the environment,” said Boyd.

“We’d be far better off in the future if we’d actually recognize that nature is this amazing community to which all of us belong.”

— Dr. David Boyd, United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment

The fact that both men to hold the position are North American academics is not lost on Boyd, who is committed to listening to and empowering voices from smaller countries and countries in the global south who are often more acutely impacted by the effects of climate change. He is also cognizant that Indigenous perspectives are essential to ensuring responsible, sustainable and just resource uses.

“This idea of nature as having legal rights — from rivers to ecosystems and even to non-human species — is quite a radical idea to the West, and yet [the] notion that nature has rights is actually at the heart of many Indigenous legal systems,” said Boyd.

We still have much to learn from Indigenous peoples.”

As he prepares for his first annual report to the UN General Assembly in New York City this October — he will also report annually to the UN Human Rights Council — Boyd is also looking to connect the urgency of climate change with action at all levels, including the university. Citing the negative impacts of smoke in the Lower Mainland and across Canada this summer, Boyd stressed that these patterns can no longer be ignored.

“There is such an imperative for this work at all levels, and UBC has been a leader in sustainability,” he said.

Despite working on issues that can often seem insurmountable, Boyd himself embodies the optimistic environmentalist. His advice, particularly to young people, is to focus on the progress that has already been made on issues such as promoting biodiversity recovery, bringing clean drinking water to billions around the world and improving air quality.

“There’s a track record that when people get together and work hard on these problems, we can actually bring about solutions. And frankly for younger people, I think we’re really on the cusp of one of the most exciting eras in all of human history,” said Boyd, noting that these solutions may require rethinking our relationship with the natural world. “It is just such an incredible miracle to live on this beautiful planet and the climate of this planet is responsible for the fact that life is able to live here.

“We’d be far better off in the future if we’d actually recognize that nature is this amazing community to which all of us belong.”