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Marjan Minnesma

2022 Goldman Prize Winner

Marjan Minnesma

Climate & Energy
Europe
The Netherlands

In a groundbreaking victory, Marjan Minnesma leveraged public input and a unique legal strategy to secure a successful ruling against the Dutch government, requiring it to enact specific preventive measures against climate change. In December 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the government had a legal obligation to protect its citizens from climate change and ordered it, by the end of 2020, to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below 1990 levels. The Netherlands' Supreme Court decision marks the first time that citizens succeeded in holding their government accountable for its failure to protect them from climate change.

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Meet Marjan Minnesma

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In a groundbreaking victory, Marjan Minnesma leveraged public input and a unique legal strategy to secure a successful ruling against the Dutch government, requiring it to enact specific preventive measures against climate change. In December 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the government had a legal obligation to protect its citizens from climate change and ordered it, by the end of 2020, to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 25% below 1990 levels. The Netherlands' Supreme Court decision marks the first time that citizens succeeded in holding their government accountable for its failure to protect them from climate change.

A Global Crisis with Local Levers

Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are causing unprecedented and intensifying climate change in every region of the planet. Experts predict a global temperature increase of 1.5ºC in the next 20 years. In stark contrast to its environmentally progressive image of bicycles, windmills, tulips, lush farmland, and agricultural exports, the Netherlands is in fact an industrial powerhouse and a major polluter.

The low-lying nation is highly dependent on fossil fuels, with 89% of its energy generated by coal and natural gas; in 2015 and 2016 alone, three new coal-fired power plants came online. The Netherlands was until recently Europe’s second largest producer and exporter of natural gas, and the coastal hub of Rotterdam is Europe’s largest petrochemical port.

The Dutch landscape (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Meanwhile, with 1/3 of the Netherlands lying below sea level, 50% of the country is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which include rapidly rising sea levels and rivers prone to flooding. The country has developed a sophisticated system of dikes, pumps, levees, and storm barriers to keep water at bay, but certain coastal regions are already sinking 1/3 inch per year. In 2016, the Netherlands Environment Agency reported that flood damage to buildings and infrastructure could cost the country over $22 billion by 2050. In 1952, a devastating flood killed almost 2,000 people; in June 2021, floods caused $470 million in damage.

A Determined Foe of Climate Inaction

Marjan Minnesma, 55, was born and raised in a small town outside of Amsterdam with a strong sense of her power as an independent woman and thinker. Her career took her on a journey from physics, business administration, and the corporate world (including writing her dissertation at Shell) to international law, philosophy, academia, and eventually full-time environmental work. She served as a director for the Institute of Transitions before establishing Urgenda in 2007 in order to work on innovative climate change solutions full-time.

Marjan Minnesma (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Climate Accountability, One Nation at a Time

In 2010, all EU member states adopted targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. As time passed and the Dutch government continued to ignore its commitments, Marjan formulated a plan to hold the government accountable. Inspired in part by Revolution Justified, by Roger Cox, she argued that the government was putting Dutch citizens in harm’s way due to its inaction on climate change, and that it has a legal obligation—“duty of care”—to protect them. The proposed remedy was judicial intervention to force action by the Dutch government.

In November 2012, Marjan held a seminar for elected officials and journalists near the Dutch parliament. She had hoped—to no avail—that lawmakers would return to parliament and demand action on climate change. She followed up with a letter to the government demanding a 40% reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2020. The government responded that it did not want to be a “frontrunner” in tackling climate change.

Frustrated by the government’s inaction, in November 2013 Urgenda filed a lawsuit against the government reiterating the demand for a 40% reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2020, or at minimum a 25% reduction from 1990 levels. Many thought the suit was an extreme longshot, with little chance of success.

As the legal case progressed, Marjan knew that she needed to involve the public in her efforts. She pioneered “crowd pleading,” a hybrid of crowdfunding and citizen science, and asked Dutch citizens to find arguments in similar court cases around the world. She then invited the public to help build the case by submitting reasons why citizens have the right to be protected from climate change. Ultimately, 886 individuals joined as co-plaintiffs, including a 5-year-old boy.

In June 2015, Urgenda achieved a significant victory when the Hague’s district court ruled that the Dutch government had breached its duty of care by failing to enact measures to protect its citizens from climate change. A spontaneous international campaign (dubbed “Do not appeal”) urged the Dutch government to accept the decision. Instead, in September 2015, the government appealed on 29 counts.

Dutch courtroom (Photo: Chantal Bekker for Urgenda)

Meanwhile, Marjan continued to build public support for emissions reductions, visiting small towns across the Netherlands and giving more than 200 speeches focusing on tangible climate solutions.

In October 2018, Urgenda secured another victory when the district court upheld the June 2015 ruling, dismissed all 29 appeals, and declared that the government also had a legal obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights to protect its citizens. However, the government again appealed the decision, and the case went to the Supreme Court.

Urgenda worked with more than 800 Dutch NGOs and businesses, including paper manufacturers and farmers, to publish 54 concrete measures that the government could adopt to reduce greenhouse gases by 25%. Measures included lowering speed limits from 80 to 60 mph, subsidies to reduce livestock numbers, more sustainable forest management practices, and subsidies for rooftop solar and home insulation.

Finally, in December 2019, Marjan’s bold legal strategy paid off: the Supreme Court issued an extraordinary ruling upholding the lower courts’ decisions and forcing the government to cut emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020. Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, calls the ruling “the strongest decision ever issued by any court in the world on climate change, and the only one that has actually ordered reductions in greenhouse gas emissions based on constitutional grounds.”

Marjan’s activism generated an irreversible precedent. Her leadership demonstrated that governments can be compelled to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and that citizens have a legal right to be protected from their government’s contributions to climate change. The ruling also has major implications for governments around the world, many of which are far behind on their climate promises. Inspired by Marjan’s work, activists in Belgium, France, Ireland, Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Norway, and New Zealand are making similar stands, now with a model for victory.

Marjan Minnesma after victory in court (Photo: Chantal Bekker for Urgenda)

How You Can Help

Support Marjan’s goal to reduce greenhouse gasses around the world ASAP:

  • Build a culture of climate-friendly choices:
    • Eat less meat
    • Use solar energy in your homes
    • Walk and bike
    • Buy sustainably
    • Plant trees in gardens rather than placing stones
  • Follow Marjan on social media:
  • Visit Urgenda’s website and follow them on social media: