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Holding Governments Accountable for Climate Change

July 12, 2022

You’ve heard the stats: The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that current plans to limit global warming to 1.5ºC (2.7ºF) are not enough. Though nearly every nation on Earth signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, most countries are falling woefully short of those commitments. Wildfires, flooding, warming seas—climate change is here, and human suffering is no longer a next-generation worry.

With world leaders moving too slowly and international treaties often ignored, a new type of environmental action is emerging: climate litigation. After all, governments can and should be held accountable for their actions (just like companies), whether on the grounds of negligence, breaches of constitutional and human rights, or fraud. According to the United Nations Environmental Environment Programme (UNEP), as of January 2021, there are 1,550 climate litigation cases in 38 countries—more than double compared to 2015.

Landmark Cases in the Fight Against Climate Change

In perhaps the highest-profile climate litigation case to date, The State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda Foundation, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the country must slash greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below 1990 levels. Led by Prize winner Marjan Minnesma (The Netherlands, 2022), the lawsuit argued that the Dutch government had a “duty of care” to protect its citizens from the effects of climate change, and it was failing. According to the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, it’s the first climate case that “​actually ordered reductions in greenhouse gas emissions based on constitutional grounds.”

Other cases are following suit—with legal claims varying from constitutional, civil, and administrative law to fraud, consumer protection, and human rights. Europe has seen a number of victories: In France, courts ruled that the state has failed to meet its climate change goals, and the government must take action; Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s Climate Protection Act must be amended to include stricter measures. (And, despite the new approach aimed at national policy, multinational companies remain under the spotlight: in another landmark ruling in the Netherlands, oil behemoth Royal Dutch Shell was ordered to limit emissions by 45% by 2030 from 1990 levels.)

2022 Goldman Prize winner Marjan Minnesma following Urgenda’s 2019 victory at the Supreme Court (Photo: Chantal Bekker for Urgenda)

In some high-profile cases, the younger generation is leading the way:

  • In the United States “climate kids” case, Juliana v. United States, 21 youths (ages eight to 18) asserted that the US government, through affirmative actions to cause climate change, had violated the younger generation’s rights to life, liberty, and property. The case was ultimately dismissed, with the Ninth Circuit court arguing that the evidence was compelling but the courts didn’t have jurisdiction.
  • In Australia, the teen-led Sharma v. Minister of the Environment resulted in a landmark decision in 2020: The government had a duty of care to protect Australian children from carbon dioxide emissions resulting from a proposed mine. Unfortunately, in a significant blow, in 2022, the decision was overturned in a federal appeal.
  • Held v. State of Montana involves 16 young people suing the fuel-dependent state of Montana to address unconstitutional energy policies. The case has been set for trial in 2023, becoming the first youth-led climate case to go to trial in United States history.

Regardless of the country, defendant, or the age of the plaintiff, in the fight against climate change, every win matters.

What’s Next?

Too often, enforcement and follow-through are yet another hurdle, especially when climate goals conveniently sit decades away. While the Netherlands’ carbon emissions were on a downward trajectory from 2015 to 2021, rates are back up in 2022, and the country is still falling short of its climate ambitions. And, while Royal Dutch Shell agreed to reduce its direct emissions by 2050, the company plans to appeal the ruling.

Though concrete results are certainly challenging to secure, it’s worth noting a pattern: Across the globe, courts are not denying that climate change a) exists and b) results in human suffering. As climate litigation cases see success and public opinion shifts, the growing body of precedent will make it easier for future litigants to demand—and create—concrete change. It may be our best bet yet.

Support 2022 Goldman Prize winner Marjan Minnesma: follow Marjan on Twitter and visit Urgenda’s website.

About the author

Jacqueline Kehoe

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer whose work focuses on citizen conservation and public lands. She has been published in National Geographic, Sierra, Lonely Planet, and more.

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