A Global Movement
Around the world, hundreds of similar climate cases are ongoing. Proceedings in the Netherlands, the United States, Belgium, Norway, Ireland, Switzerland, New Zealand and Colombia have received significant media attention.
In one of the most successful and inspiring strategic climate cases to date, the Urgenda Foundation took the Dutch government to court on behalf of nearly 900 Dutch citizens, claiming that the government breached its duty of care by failing to set sufficient emissions reduction targets. The first instance court ruled in 2015 that the government had failed to uphold its duty of care and should devise a plan to achieve reductions in greenhouse gases (GHG) to 25% below the levels in 1990 by 2020. The government appealed the judgment in September 2015, despite the fact that it agreed to work with Urgenda to reduce the country’s overall emissions. In October 2018, the Hague Court of Appeal confirmed this groundbreaking decision issued in 2015, meaning that the Dutch government must increase its climate ambition and reduce emissions to protect its citizens’ fundamental rights. On 16 November 2018, the government announced its intention to appeal the Hague Court of Appeal’s judgment.
Back in 2015, 21 young people and a climate scientist, acting as guardians for future generations, sued the US federal government and president for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and equal protection, as well as their public trust rights to vital natural resources. American environmental non-profits Our Children’s Trust (OCT) and Earth Guardians supported the lawsuit, which claims that the government’s failure to act is a direct and purposeful infringement on the rights of the young plaintiffs. In 2016, Justice Ann Aiken of the District Court of Oregon allowed the case, stating that “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law, and the world has suffered for it.” Both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to block the suit, and though the case has been cleared to advance by the Supreme Court, part of a stay requested by the Trump administration was granted on 8 November 2018. However, trial preparations are still continuing. This landmark case is rapidly developing.
Inspired by the Urgenda victory, a group of Belgian citizens brought their own Klimaatzaak, which means “climate case”. They are suing both Belgium’s regional and federal governments for failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 87.5% below 1990 levels by 2050. The case has over 9000 citizens listed as co-plaintiffs. After three years of delays due to procedural and language challenges, the highest court rejected the government’s language challenge on 20 April 2018. Since then, the plaintiffs have been able to move forward with a written exchange of arguments, which will take place until the end of 2019.
Greenpeace Nordic and Norwegian youth group Nature and Youth sued the Norwegian government for granting new oil and gas exploration licenses in the Barents Sea, arguing that the government breached the Constitution’s right to a healthy environment and thus to a stable climate for present and future generations. The lawsuit focused on licenses the government granted after it signed and ratified the Paris Agreement. In January 2018, the Oslo District Court recognised that there is a constitutional right to a healthy environment, but found that the government did not violate any of the relevant rights in making the licensing decision. Greenpeace and Nature and Youth appealed the decision in February 2018. The appeal will take place at the end of 2019.
Friends of the Irish Environment is suing the Irish government for its climate inaction. They allege that the government’s approval of the National Mitigation Plan (2017) is a violation of their constitutional and human rights, as well as falling short of the steps necessary to achieve the Paris Agreement goals. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to a Healthy Environment, David Boyd, submitted an expert statement on human rights obligations related to climate change with a particular focus on the right to life, in support of the case. He stated that the Irish government has “clear, positive, and enforceable obligations to protect against the infringement of human rights by climate change [and] it must reduce emissions as rapidly as possible, applying the maximum available resources”.
In a first case of its kind in Switzerland, an initial group of almost 500 elderly women (now over 1,000) sued the Swiss government over its alleged failure to take adequate measures to combat climate change. They claim that the Swiss authorities are failing to fulfil their duty to protect them from climate change as required by the Swiss Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights. As older women, they are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, especially due to the increase in heatwaves. On 25 April, 2017, the Swiss Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC) denied the Senior Women’s request. The Klimaseniorinnen appealed at the Federal Administrative Court on 26 May 2017.
In 2015, law student Sarah Thompson filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Climate Change Issues, claiming that the Minister had failed to review climate targets after the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report in 2013. She also alleged that the government’s greenhouse gas targets were "unreasonable and irrational" given the seriousness of climate change. On 2 November 2017, the court found that the former minister should have carried out a review of the reduction targets based on the latest available science, in that case the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Before the decision from the court, an election in 2017 saw a new government which campaigned on eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Because the question was moot now that a new government was in place, the court declined to annul the target. Importantly, the judgment included a long discussion regarding the authority of the courts to review climate change policy, noting that courts should not consider it a “no go area” simply because the state has entered international obligations, or because of the complexity of science. The court stated that the “IPCC reports provide a factual basis on which decisions can be made.”
Twenty-five young people, with the support of Dejusticia, sued the Colombian government for failing to honour its commitment to tackle climate change. In a historic win in April 2018, Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice found the Colombian government liable for not halting the increasing deforestation of the Amazon forest, thereby increasing the average temperature in the country and threatening young people’s rights to life, health, food, water and a healthy environment. The Supreme Court gave two main orders: to develop a short, medium and long-term Action Plan to stop deforestation within four months, and to create an Intergenerational Pact for the Life of the Colombian Amazon within a five-month period. The decision is also groundbreaking because it recognised that the Amazon Basin is “a subject of rights”. This is the first climate case where a river basin is recognised as a legitimate right-holder whose interest can be represented in a court of law.