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Why climate lawsuits are on the rise
Blog...Why climate lawsuits are on the rise

Why climate lawsuits are on the rise

Ecology News
Judge sitting at desk with gavel on it
In this article, we’ll explore the reason behind the rise in climate lawsuits and what this means for the future of climate justice.
Ecology News
Judge sitting at desk with gavel on it

The impacts of climate change are becoming both undeniable and unavoidable. Extreme weather events - from scorching heat waves to catastrophic floods - are occurring with increased frequency and intensity, laying bare the vulnerabilities of our societies and ecosystems. 

As the devastating effects of climate change become more severe, so too does the urgency for meaningful action. Yet, across the globe, governmental and corporate responses remain frustratingly inadequate, prompting a rise in what's known as climate lawsuits. These legal actions demand accountability and change from those who have the power to make a difference but are failing to do so.

👉 In this article, we’ll explore the reason behind the rise in climate lawsuits, shedding light on why affected communities are increasingly turning to the courts to safeguard their futures and ensure that their rights to a stable climate and healthy environment are upheld.

Urgency of climate action

The world is witnessing unprecedented shifts in its climate systems, leading to extreme weather events. In recent years, we have seen how rising global temperatures exacerbate natural disasters - intensifying hurricanes, prolonging droughts, and sparking wildfires. These climate crises not only disrupt ecosystems but also threaten human lives and livelihoods, particularly in communities that are least equipped to cope.

As the planet continues to warm, the effects of climate change are pushing populations to their limits. The most vulnerable among us - often living in fragile environments or those that are lacking in resources - are often the hardest hit. These ongoing climate crises highlight that the time for action to combat climate change is now. Yet, despite a clear scientific consensus on this urgency and growing public demand for climate policies, the response from many global leaders and corporations remains underwhelming.

This gap between what is needed and actual policy response has led to an increased sense of urgency among affected communities and activists. No longer willing or able to wait for change, these groups are leveraging the legal system as a tool for enforcing accountability. Climate lawsuits are becoming a new and important tool in the fight against climate change, with the potential to compel governments and corporations to honor their environmental commitments and protect the rights of their citizens to a safe and stable climate.

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What are climate lawsuits?

Climate lawsuits are legal challenges brought by individuals, groups, or organizations against governments or corporations over failures to take adequate action on climate change. These lawsuits are rooted in the belief that these entities have a duty to protect the environment and by extension, the public, from the adverse effects of climate change. They leverage existing environmental laws, public trust doctrines, and, increasingly, human rights frameworks to argue their cases.

Climate lawsuits seek to hold entities accountable for contributing to global warming through emissions of greenhouse gases, failure to enforce environmental regulations, or misleading the public about the impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs in these cases range from activist groups and local communities to entire cities and states. Defendants are typically fossil fuel companies, large polluters, and governmental bodies. The legal claims often revolve around negligence or violations of constitutional or human rights, arguing that inadequate climate action infringes on the rights to health, a clean environment, and, in some cases, life itself.

👉 Climate lawsuits can be a crucial tool for initiating change, compelling governments and corporations to prioritize and accelerate their climate actions in line with scientific recommendations and international agreements. 

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Legal grounds for climate lawsuits

Climate lawsuits are built on a mix of environmental law, human rights claims, and in some jurisdictions, specific climate change legislation. These legal actions seek not only to mitigate the effects of climate change but also to hold responsible parties accountable for their roles in contributing to global warming. Here we explore the legal grounds that underpin these lawsuits.

Environmental law and negligence

Many climate lawsuits hinge on traditional environmental law principles, such as the duty to prevent harm to the environment and the public. In several cases, these principles are interpreted through the lens of negligence, where plaintiffs argue that governments or corporations have failed to act with reasonable care to prevent environmental harm. The lawsuits often challenge the adequacy of national climate policies or corporate practices against the backdrop of environmental statutes and international agreements like the Paris Agreement.

Public trust doctrine

One foundational aspect of climate lawsuits is the ‘public trust doctrine’, which states that certain natural resources should be preserved for public use, and the government has a duty to protect these resources for the public's benefit. In the context of climate litigation, this doctrine is invoked to argue that the atmosphere is a public trust resource. Plaintiffs claim that the government has an obligation to protect the atmosphere from excessive CO2 emissions, which are a primary contributor to global warming and climate change.

Human rights claims

A rapidly growing area of climate litigation involves human rights claims. Plaintiffs argue that failure to address climate change violates their fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, health, and a private and family life. These arguments have gained traction as international bodies and national courts increasingly recognize the right to a healthy environment as fundamental. The recent landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which recognized environmental protection as integral to human rights, exemplifies this trend and provides a robust framework for future cases.

Groundbreaking judgments

  • Asghar Leghari vs. Federation of Pakistan (2015) - The plaintiff, Asghar Leghari, a farmer, brought the case against the Pakistani government, citing its inaction and negligence in implementing climate change measures outlined in the country’s National Climate Change Policy of 2012 and its Framework for Implementation of Climate Change Policy. The court recognized the Pakistan government's failure to achieve the objectives and mandated the creation of a Climate Change Commission. This commission was tasked with ensuring that Pakistan adhered to its climate goals, marking a significant step towards judicial activism in environmental governance.
  • Future Generations v. Ministry of the Environment and Others (2018) - In this influential case, Colombian youth sued various government bodies for failing to curb deforestation in the Amazon, asserting that this neglect threatened their rights to a healthy environment and other fundamental human rights. Initially, a lower court ruled against the youth plaintiffs, but upon their appeal, the Supreme Court of Colombia reversed the decision. This landmark ruling recognized the Colombian Amazon as a ‘subject of rights’, similar to a person, which entitled it to protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration. The Court also ordered the government to formulate and implement action plans to address deforestation in the Amazon.
  • Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands (2019) - Initiated by the Urgenda Foundation alongside 900 co-plaintiffs, this landmark case against the Dutch government aimed to enforce stricter climate action to prevent dangerous climate change. The Dutch Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings that the government had a legal duty to protect its citizens from climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions more aggressively. This ruling set a significant global precedent, inspiring a wave of similar lawsuits worldwide and affirming the role of judicial systems in enforcing national climate policies.
  • Neubauer v Germany (2021) - Initiated by climate activists and several other plaintiffs, the case targeted the Federal Climate Change Act of Germany. The plaintiffs argued that the government's measures under the act were insufficient to meet its constitutional obligations to protect future generations from the impacts of climate change. The German Constitutional Court agreed, ruling that while the act set climate targets for up to 2030, it left too much of the burden for reducing emissions to post-2030, which unfairly burdened younger generations. The court mandated the government to create clearer, more ambitious paths for emission reductions post-2030. 
Climate lawsuits are increasingly shaping how environmental governance is implemented. They compel governments and businesses to consider the long-term environmental and health impacts of their policies and operations. This growing body of jurisprudence not only underscores the urgency of robust climate action but also reinforces the link between environmental sustainability and human rights.

The European Court of Human Rights' landmark ruling

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently issued a groundbreaking judgment affirming that inadequate government action on climate change can violate human rights - the first time that an international court has done so. This decision marks a significant shift in how legal systems view the intersection of environmental policy and human rights, setting a precedent for future climate lawsuits across Europe and potentially influencing other courts around the world.

Climate protection as a human right

The ECHR's ruling centered on a case brought by a group of senior women in Switzerland, who argued that their government's insufficient climate policies exposed them to increased health risks during heatwaves, thus violating their rights to family life and privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights. While Swiss courts rejected the claim the ECHR sided with the plaintiff, stating that governments have a legal obligation to adopt and pursue more aggressive climate policies to protect their citizens from the life-threatening impacts of climate change.

The ruling in Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland is groundbreaking as it explicitly links climate action to the protection of fundamental human rights, reinforcing the notion that governments have a duty not only to mitigate the environmental impacts of climate change but also to shield their citizens from its harmful effects.

Implications for future litigation

The ECHR's decision provides a clear legal framework that can be leveraged by activists and communities across other EU countries:

  • Setting legal precedent - The ruling sets a precedent that climate inaction can and does infringe on human rights, offering a new avenue for climate litigation. It empowers individuals and groups to hold their governments accountable for climate negligence through the judicial system.
  • Influence beyond Europe - While the decision is binding only within EU member states, its influence is likely to extend globally. Similar courts around the world may look to this decision when considering their own climate litigation cases, potentially leading to a more unified global approach to climate justice and human rights.
  • Empowering vulnerable communities - The judgment underscores the particular vulnerability of certain demographic groups - such as the elderly, children, and low-income communities - to the effects of climate change. It opens the door for these groups to seek legal redress, potentially leading to more tailored climate policies that address specific vulnerabilities.

While the ECHR's decision is a significant victory for climate justice, it also highlights several challenges and considerations for future cases.

  • Burden of proof - Plaintiffs in climate lawsuits must still demonstrate a direct link between governmental climate policies (or the lack thereof) and the specific harms suffered, which can be a high evidentiary hurdle to overcome.
  • Legal complexity - The legal arguments in climate cases are often complex, involving scientific data and predictions about future conditions. This complexity can pose challenges both for the courts in understanding the issues and for plaintiffs in presenting their cases effectively.
  • Government compliance - Even with favorable court rulings, ensuring government compliance with orders to enhance climate action remains a challenge. Monitoring and enforcement mechanisms must be robust to ensure that legal victories translate into real-world policy changes.

The ECHR's ruling is a watershed moment in the legal fight against climate change. It not only expands the legal tools available for addressing climate inaction but also reinforces the critical role of the courts in safeguarding human rights in the face of global environmental challenges. As this area of law continues to evolve, it will shape the landscape of climate policy and human rights protection for years to come.

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Impact of climate lawsuits

Climate lawsuits have become a significant force in shaping public policy and corporate behavior toward sustainability. These legal challenges leverage the judicial system to enforce environmental protection and influence change at governmental and corporate levels.

Influencing public policy and corporate behavior

Climate lawsuits often target entities that fail to adhere to environmental regulations or contribute significantly to pollution. Landmark cases like the lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell in the Netherlands, which resulted in a court ordering Shell to cut its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels, illustrate the direct impact of legal action. This case set a precedent and has encouraged other groups to pursue similar lawsuits, potentially leading to more stringent regulatory measures on corporate emissions globally.

In addition to enforcing immediate changes, these lawsuits help to shape public policy by highlighting areas where current legislation may be lacking. They also put pressure on governments to tighten environmental regulations and enforce existing laws more rigorously to avoid future litigation.

Climate lawsuits are playing an increasingly prominent role in the global fight against climate change. By holding governments and corporations accountable, these legal battles not only foster immediate changes in policies and practices but also inspire a broader shift toward sustainability.

As these lawsuits gain visibility, they serve as a powerful tool for environmental advocacy groups to influence public opinion and policy. They highlight the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for action, pushing for more robust environmental policies and practices.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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