By Kim Robson:
Private citizens, even teenagers, are fighting against global climate change by taking legal action against their own governments and the world’s biggest oil conglomerates. Their claims are that these entities have failed to protect us from the risks and consequences of climate change.
Climate change lawsuits are being seen more and more often, according to a by the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia Law School. With nearly 900 cases in 24 countries as of last March, in the future, courts will become increasingly involved in the fight against climate change.
Check out these four landmark suits with significant decisions pending in 2018. The precedents they set may be vitally important for our futures:
Youth vs. the Government of the United States
A group of 21 American young people between 10 and 21 years of age is suing the U.S. government for failing to curb climate change. They filed the joint lawsuit with their attorneys and climate scientist James Hansen in 2015. All the plaintiffs have been personally impacted by climate change, whether from drought, floods or wildfires.
The lawsuit entitled “Juliana vs. U.S.” accuses the federal government of violating our constitutional rights to life and liberty, and of failing to protect essential public trust resources like air and water, which are vital to survival.
“Our role as plaintiffs is to show them the personal harm climate change is causing. We represent the children — not just of this nation, but of the entire world,” says 20-year-old student Tia Hatton. “We are all very worried about our future, health and safety from the climate change impacts that we’re seeing already, and that will worsen as time goes on.”
The case has received strong opposition from lobby groups, the fossil fuel industry and the U.S. government, which tried to get the case dismissed, claiming it could lead to a “constitutional crisis.” The motions for appeal were denied and the lawsuit was ruled valid by U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, who wrote the following in her ruling: “This lawsuit may be groundbreaking, but the fact does not alter the legal standards governing the motions to dismiss. […] Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environment law, and the world has suffered for it.”
U.S. State Attorneys vs. ExxonMobil
This seeks to hold oil giant ExxonMobil responsible for its climate change coverup. It claims that ExxonMobil failed to protect Massachusetts communities against pollution that impacts climate change, and has lied to the public about the risks of climate change. They allege that Exxon executives had been aware of the risks associated with fossil fuels as early as 1977, but launched a campaign to cover up those findings.
A group of state attorneys general, led by New York’s Eric Schneiderman, claim that ExxonMobil endangered communities by ignoring the threat posed by severe weather events and rising sea levels to its Everett facility along the Mystic River in Massachusetts. ExxonMobil has denied the claims, and plans to fight the lawsuit in court.
Citizens vs. the Government of the Netherlands
A Dutch court ordered the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions nationwide by at least 25 percent by the year of 2020 (compared to 1990 levels). It remains the only case in the world so far to impose a government’s obligation to control climate change. According to the , “The state must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment.”
While the Dutch government is appealing the verdict, it has taken steps forward like announcing an end to coal use. This landmark case laid the foundations for similar lawsuits around the world. One example of this is a group of Belgian artists, filmmakers and rock stars suing the Belgian government over climate change.
Peruvian Farmer vs. German Energy Company RWE
Saúl Lliuya from Huaraz, a city located in the Andean Mountains in western Peru, says his community is facing catastrophic flooding as a nearby glacier melts.
Lliuya, who is being supported by environmental organization Germanwatch, claims RWE’s coal power emissions contribute to around 0.5 percent of global climate change, and should therefore pay half a percent of the measures required for protecting the area. He wants €17,000 ($20,000) to pay for flood defenses for his community, plus a €6,384 reimbursement for protective measures he’s already personally paid for.
Naturally, RWE says the case has no legal basis because the alleged danger of flooding has never been sufficiently demonstrated. It argues that emitting CO2is not illegal, and that individual companies should not be held responsible. However, a German court disagreed, saying that Lliuya’s lawsuit has merit, and ruled to proceed with the case. This will be the first time a German civil court has been asked to rule on whether a company can be held financially responsible for climate damage in other parts of the world.
As more and more climate cases are being filed, we will see lawyers pointing to a range of factors, from Donald Trump’s EPA-killing policies, to more extreme weather events, to what energy companies sought to hide about climate change dangers, to a growing awareness of the urgent need to act in the legal arena.