Human Rights, Glaciers Take Center Stage at Talk

Article excerpt

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

He started his presentation with a groaner of a joke.

"What you're about to hear is really cool," Daniel Taillant told his audience at the University of Oregon Law School last Friday before launching into a discussion of, ahem, glaciers.

Taillant, of Argentina, spoke as part of New Directions for Human Rights and the Environment, a two-day international symposium for environmental law students and scholars. He was one of three experts discussing the topic of human rights and water.

"Why would you discuss a topic as obscure as glaciers in a discussion about human rights?" he asked his audience. He noted that the year-round ice sheets are generally far from populations, in "cold, high, rocky, arid environments that are not people friendly."

But glaciers also are the world's largest repository of the fresh water humans need to survive.

"Only 2 to 3 percent of the world's water is fresh water," he said. "And 70 percent of that fresh water is in glaciers, making them one of the most important things affected by climate change."

Yet glaciers are poorly understood, he said, and Argentina is the only country in the world with a law protecting this crucial resource.

That law was passed thanks in part to the work of Centro de Derechos Humano y Ambiente (the Center for Human Rights and Environment), which Taillant co-founded in 1999 with his wife, Argentine human rights lawyer Romina Picolotti.

The nonprofit organization works to improve the relationship between people and the environment, and won the Sierra Club's 2009 Earth Care Award for its effectiveness in raising the bar on corporate sector responsibility for human rights and the environment.

A key area of interest is the human right to water. That led Taillant four years ago to begin studying glaciers and how to legally protect them.

At first blush it might seem impossible do anything to protect glaciers from climate change. After all, the warming of the earth's atmosphere doesn't recognize any legal boundaries or respond to court orders.

But Taillant said there are ways, and it's important to try.

"These are massive water reserves," he said.

Like sea ice, they reduce global warming by reflecting - rather than absorbing - sunlight, he said, and their melt can cause sea levels to rise.

Taillant, whose flawless English reflects his California childhood and years studying economics and political science in Berkeley and Washington, D. …