Climate change legal disputes are already yielding results
By: Jaylene Matias
Today, there is no denying that humans have contributed to the extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and flooding that are seen worldwide. As these catastrophes worsen, they bring to the fore concerns that the world has been debating for more than 30 years: Who is accountable for that harm? How much should they pay, exactly?
People from all around the world are turning to the courtroom more frequently to try to answer these issues. According to a paper released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, there will be 2,180 cases worldwide by the end of 2022, which is twice as many as there were in 2017. This is the third study of its kind, which looks at historical trends in the climate litigation data in the Sabin Center’s database.
In addition to a continuous rise of climate-related litigation over the last five years, the new research highlights that as the irrefutable nature of climate change’s effects has increased, so too has the variety of legal tactics. 70 percent of all instances, by far, are still in the United States.
These cases are a very recent development. Some have a more focused goal, such as stopping the development of a fossil fuel project or ending deceptive marketing. Others might establish fresh legal guidelines. Numerous legal actions brought in the US accuse the fossil fuel industry of deceiving the public about climate science and even crossing the line into organized crime. Governments have been under pressure from individuals and environmental organizations all around the world to acknowledge the effects of climate change on human rights.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the foremost authority on climate science, acknowledged the rising tide of litigation formally last year and emphasized the role it plays in addressing concerns about how climate change should be managed outside of formal policymaking. The IPCC report also emphasizes a crucial truth: litigation may support international cooperation and policymaking, not replace it.
It is more difficult to understand how climate litigation has affected climate policy than to just observe the volume growth. That’s because climate litigation is a protracted process, frequently including years of legal technicalities and appeals before a ruling that might go any way.
The UNEP research shows a number of trends, one of which is a definite increase in the geographic and racial diversity of climate litigation.
Usually, cases are concentrated in the US and Europe, but this is beginning to shift. More cases involving the issue of compensation for climate damages are found in the Global South, where nations will experience some of the greatest effects of climate change while producing the least pollution. Lawsuits are also being filed in more places: The number of courts, tribunals, and quasi-judicial organizations hearing cases increased from 24 to 65 between 2017 and 2022 amongst international and regional courts, tribunals, and organizations like the Human Rights Committee.
These cases have developed into an unanticipated means of giving those who are more susceptible to climate change, such as children, women, and Indigenous people, a voice when they are typically excluded from public policymaking. The cases’ objectives range widely, from urging governments to halt the use of fossil fuels to seeking restitution for climate-related losses.
The group Our Children’s Trust is involved in court cases in five different nations on behalf of young plaintiffs who have sued their governments to demand that they adopt more drastic climate change action. While Juliana v. United States, a federal case first filed in 2015, is finally going to trial, another case in Montana is awaiting a ruling from a federal district court judge.
In addition, Indigenous peoples are suing in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Ecuador, France, New Zealand, and the United States, claiming that their lands are in risk of disappearing and are becoming uninhabitable.
Given that there is evidence that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, women have also played a distinctive role in legal proceedings. One lawsuit, backed by Greenpeace, is the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, a group of over-64-year-old Swiss women. Because elderly populations are more susceptible to rising heat waves, they have filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights asking the court to require Switzerland to seek more aggressive climate targets.
Financial constraints undoubtedly restrict how much ordinary people and the environmental advocacy organizations that speak for them may be heard in the legal system. However, litigation continue to provide a route to accountability that the covert yearly discussions conducted through the UN and legislative compromise do not.
A emerging class of climate cases adopts a broader view of human rights, in contrast to earlier cases, which frequently concentrated exclusively on halting oil extraction and promoting government regulation of fossil fuels. People, they contend, have unalienable rights to a healthy climate. Climate rights were codified as UN Human Rights Council (HRC) policy in 2021 and generally include the right to clean food, water, and a safe, healthy environment.
Climate activists believe that these trials will alter both the perception of climate change and the politics and policies governing who is responsible for covering the costs of damages. Currently, the costs are entirely borne by the individual and by all taxpayers, but this may alter depending on how these liability actions turn out.
Additionally, the trials change how the general public views climate change and help them to understand that climate change is not a tragedy and is a crime. Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, told CNN that Oil companies “shifted the guilt to people when in fact the guilt belongs to them,”.