Environmental Social

How you can take your government to court for not acting on the climate crisis

Kristin Casper & Richard Harvey / 1 Mar 2020

Governments made promises to act on the climate crisis as part of the Paris Agreement, but most are failing. So thousands of us are taking to the courts to seek justice where decision-makers fail to protect our communities and our planet. The legal profession is responding to the demands of millions of us, mobilizing to address the climate emergency.

People's Summit on Climate, Rights and Human Survival in New York. © Tracie Williams / Greenpeace
Attendees of the Peoples’ Summit on Climate, Rights and Human Survival at New York University © Tracie Williams / Greenpeace

The International Bar Association has just released a model statute that provides a pathway for people to access the courts to challenge the governments failing to live up to their climate commitments. This new model statute can go a long way to remove the obstacles for people to demand protection of the right to a clean and healthy environment – now, and for future generations.

Courts and the law have become essential for those of us trying to find solutions to the climate emergency. International legal experts are joining this struggle to help the millions who are doing their best, day in and day out, to address the climate crisis before it gets even worse.

How courts can hold governments to account 

More than 600 legal cases have been filed by individuals and NGOs to assert the fundamental rights of communities suffering from the climate crisis. That number is rapidly increasing. No single legal victory will solve the climate emergency, but each case contributes to getting us there faster.

For example, a Dutch environmental group called the Urgenda Foundation, together with 886 citizens sued the state of The Netherlands over its insufficient actions to prevent dangerous climate change. The Dutch Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking decision in December 2019, demonstrating how the judiciary can play a significant role in holding a national government to account for its lack of climate action. Climate change is a human rights crisis and it’s important that our legal systems respond effectively.

Celebrating after Urgenda’s decision ©Urgenda / Chantal Bekker

Over 1,200 senior women charged Switzerland with inadequate action on climate change in the Klimaseniorinnen case. A Federal Administrative Court refused to consider overwhelming evidence, effectively denying human rights protection for a group particularly vulnerable to climate change. The case is now on appeal before the Swiss Supreme Court. 

In Norway, young people and civil society are asserting their constitutional rights to a stable climate. The Court of Appeals upheld that right, but decided the national government – by granting more oil drilling permits in the Arctic – was not violating that right. That case is now heading to Norway’s Supreme Court.

Worldwide, more than 400 human rights, development and environmental groups have pledged to, “demand effective and adequate access to justice for individuals and communities whose rights are impacted by the climate crisis or lack of climate action” according to the Declaration of the Peoples’ Summit on Climate, Rights and Human Survival. This declaration represents a growing consensus among human rights, development, labor, and environmental groups, holding governments and corporations to account for the consequences of the actions that contribute to the climate crisis.

Swiss Senior Women Vote for Climate Protection. © Greenpeace / Piero Good
The Swiss association “senior women for climate protection” (KlimaSeniorinnen) © Greenpeace / Piero Good

Governments are only one factor. The law is also being used to hold companies liable for pollution, environmental damage and climate change, and not just in the courtroom. The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines recently announced that corporations like Exxon, Chevron and BP et al. could be legally, as well as morally, liable for the climate impacts of their business models. 

So what can you and I do?

We believe that judges around the world need help in deciding what evidence is reliable in climate cases, how to assess risk, understanding key international law rules and enforcing the legal rights of individuals or organisations to challenge their governments.

The IBA Model helps lawyers and judges deliver justice to those most impacted by climate change and support their demands to a dignified life. That means that you too can use the law to help your community to hold governments and corporations to account for the climate crisis. 

Greenpeace Southeast Asia has published a guide for people like you and me to hold our governments accountable for the climate catastrophe. Let’s join the students striking for our future, the workers demanding a just transition out of toxic industries, the Indigenous Peoples defending their lands, and take climate change to court.

Kristin Casper and Richard Harvey are lawyers with Greenpeace International and advise on climate justice litigation.

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