Climate change in the courts

There has been a proliferation of climate-related suits around the world as activists and citizens turn to the courts to compel their governments to address the serious threats posed by global warning.

A LACK of robust national climate policies has left many questioning just how committed their governments are to taking serious climate action within a meaningful time frame. Yes, the global community came together around the Paris climate agreement in 2015, but lack of sufficient national-level action has left people fed up. So fed up, it seems, that folks from Portugal to Pakistan to South Africa are taking their elected leaders to court.

According to a study released in 2017 by the United Nations Environment Programme and Columbia Law School, there has been a proliferation of climate-related cases brought by citizens and environmental groups, primarily against their governments. In some cases, legal strategy is anchored to the Paris Agreement, in others to national policy, and in still others, to planning requirements for specific projects - say, a coalmine or a pipeline - that will contribute to climate chaos.

More of these cases have been brought in the US than anywhere else, and in general, the lawsuits are concentrated in developed countries. So far, citizens have taken their governments to court over climate in at least 24 nations. Here's a glimpse at some of the fights that have wound their way through the courts, or that are still making their way through the legal system.

United States

More than 600 climate change cases have been filed in the US, roughly three times the number in all other countries combined. These include suits by citizens, environmental groups, and city and county governments. One of the best known is a suit by 21 children and young adults against the federal government. The lawsuit, supported by the non-profit Our Children's Trust, argues that climate change violates the plaintiffs' rights to life, liberty and property by decimating assets that are part of the public trust - think air and water and coastlines. It crossed a major legal hurdle in 2017 when a federal district judge in Oregon ruled that the case could proceed to trial. The trial is set to begin in early 2018.


Following in the footsteps of the 21 so-called 'climate kids' in the US, a group of children in Portugal are raising money to sue 47 European countries for their failure to address climate change. They argue that a lack of sufficient climate action threatens their right to life. The children, ages 5-14, are all from Portugal's Leiria region, which suffered devastating forest fires last summer. Combined, the countries targeted in the suit are responsible for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.


In 2015, in what has come to be known as a landmark case for the international climate movement, a court in The Hague ruled in favour of some 900 Dutch citizens who had sued their government for failing to sufficiently protect them from the threat of climate change. The court ordered the Dutch government to reduce the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 25% within five years. It was the first time that any court had directly ordered a government to make emission reductions. The case has been credited with inspiring other lawsuits around the world, and indeed, similar efforts have popped up across Europe, including a suit by a group of artists, filmmakers and musicians in Belgium, and a case brought by a group of nearly 800 senior women, aged 65 and above, against the Swiss government.


Pakistani farmer and law student Ashgar Leghari sued his government in 2015 for its failure to implement national climate change policy. His argument? Delayed action on climate change would contribute to heavy floods and droughts that threaten water and food security countrywide. Leghari also pointed to the direct impact of water scarcity on his family farm. And he won: Citing the rights to life and human dignity, the high court ordered the Pakistani government to create a climate change commission to address the serious threats posed by global warming, and to implement the climate policy framework it had created several years prior.

New Zealand

Law student Sarah Thomson sued the New Zealand government last summer over its national emission reduction plans, which include a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11% below 1990 levels by 2030. Thomson argues that New Zealand - which has the fifth highest per capita emissions rate in the world - has an obligation as a developed country to set emission targets under the Paris Agreement that are compatible with scientific consensus around climate change, and that it has failed to do so. And she asks that the country's Minister for Climate Issues explain just how this target was set. The case has yet to go to trial.

South Africa

In what has been described as the country's first climate change case, a high court in South Africa ruled in 2017 that the Department of Environmental Affairs misstepped by authorising a proposed coal-fired power plant without first assessing the impact it would have on climate change. The case follows similar project-specific suits elsewhere, including a case in Austria in which a court blocked expansion of an international airport because it would lead to a rise in emissions, and an ongoing case in Norway that challenges the government's decision to grant new oil drilling licences in the Arctic.               

Sources: Price of Oil, Slate, The Guardian, Greenpeace, Columbia Law School, United Nations Environment Programme, Huffington Post

The above article is reproduced from Earth Island Journal (Winter 2018).

*Third World Resurgence No. 326/327, October/November 2017, pp 45-46