Climate Change As a Legal Crisis: The Rise in Climate Litigation and How It’s Finally Paying Off
By Meerub Nisar
It is a terrifying fact that we’ve reached a point where each moment pulls us closer to irreversible climate damage. As grave as the situation is, those in power, and those with the authority to create change remain widely ignorant of the possible pessimistic nature of our futures.
Frustrated by this inaction from governments and relevant authorities, and determined to reclaim our future, people have now taken matters into their own hands to ensure implementation of positive climate legislation, and accountability for those actively harming the environment.
Since 2015, the year of the Paris Agreement, the number of climate-change related lawsuits has more than doubled. A United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report counts 2180 cases globally (as of late 2022)- roughly one-quarter of which were filed between 2020-2022, according to an LSE policy report. This increase is likely due to the increased threat and growing awareness of the topic.
Though the Global North leads with the highest numbers of cases, there is a steady increase in cases being identified in the Global South- where the worst of climate impacts may be seen, despite little contribution to the issue.
The jurisdiction of cases has also started to diversify. Domestic cases make up the majority of lawsuits, but regional, tribunal and quasi-legal courts have also seen a handful of cases now.
Climate litigation is creating a shift in power, amplifying the voices of those who are often unheard, like women and children, indigenous groups and the elderly. It’s also enhancing and pressuring climate mitigation attempts by governments with 73 cases already having been filed against, by a variety of plaintiffs, like NGOs, political parties, youth and marginalised groups.
For example, Greenpeace, an environmental NGO network, has filed lawsuits in Argentina, Norway, Mexico, Germany and Indonesia; Our Child’s Trust, a nonprofit, has done something similar: representing the youth of five countries against their governments’ inaction. In other situations, governments are also suing companies for damage to the environment; Indonesia’s Environment & Forestry Ministry sued timber companies, seeking compensation as costs to restore the natural land to its initial state.
Climate-related lawsuits are soldiers in the fight against fossil-fuel consumption. Cases against oil companies, major corporations and fossil fuel extractors continue to rise rapidly, along with cases against governments and their complicity in these schemes. Arguments of violation of human rights have been brought up by plaintiffs, and slowly, the connection between climate change and human rights is being made. Climate rights are inherent to humans and “were enshrined as UN Human Rights Council (HRC) policy in 2021”.
Litigation is now successfully raising awareness, vocalising concerns and forcing authorities to take actions to mitigate and prepare against impacts.
A global increase in climate-change related cases is estimated; cases about corporations misinforming the public of climate risks, and cases concerning climate refugees and IDPs are expected, namely.
“These cases go a long way in helping people understand climate change is not a tragedy. It’s a crime.”
-Richard Wiles, Center for Climate Integrity