Lawsuits and Climate Change


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Think back to the supposed “good old days.” Things were simpler back then, right? In a manner of speaking, you’re correct. People could more easily find good paying jobs to support their families. There weren’t nearly as many technological distractions. Citizens still believed they could usually trust their elected officials. However, one challenge in particular has changed drastically in the ensuing years; and, not always for the better: climate change and environmental issues now have a huge, seemingly insurmountable, impact on the planet.

Since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring all the way back in 1962, environmental advocacy has grown alongside the negative impacts of global climate change. The issue has historically been about grassroots organization. Charities, think-tanks, and advocates have taken to the streets. Passionate supporters have canvassed and protested; they have advertised, educated, and informed. Over the course of the last decade or so, though, these efforts have not been enough. Instead, today’s environmental activism increasingly takes place in the courtroom.

The History of Climate Justice

Large governments in the West had little legal precedent for dealing with climate change until the 1960s. The United States passed the Clean Air Act in 1963. It was the nation’s first widespread legislation dealing with climate change and remains its most influential.

Over the course of the last 40 years, individuals, departments, and advocacy groups raised numerous charges against governments. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled on the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation v. EPA. The case was one of the first to pit state and federal government against one another on the issue of climate change. Citing inconclusive data from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) on environmental impact, the Supreme Court ruled that federal regulations could overrule those at a state level if such regulations seemed “unreasonable.”

The history of battling for the climate in the courtroom didn’t truly rise to prominence until the early 21st century. Even then, the lawsuits and cases taken to the judiciary were often leveled at specific corporations in the wake of some disaster. Legal advocacy tended to be more reactionary in nature.

For instance, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there was no shortage in the amount of legal action taken against large government and corporate entities. Shortly after the devastation of New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, law firms throughout the region filed suits against several oil companies. Suits claimed that exploration and drilling activity in the area directly contributed to the severity of Hurricane Katrina.

Legal Action Today

Spurred on by the unwillingness for governments and large corporations to comply with environmental regulations, today’s “tree-huggers” have taken the fight directly to the culprits. The Paris Agreement in 2016 has helped bring exposure to the environmental crisis. Though not a binding resolution, plaintiffs can hold individual governments accountable against the 2° C goal proposed within the United Nations framework.

In Norway, ambitious lawsuits from Greenpeace and Nature and Youth both seek to hold oil companies and the government responsible for potential contributions to global warming. A district court in Oslo plans to hear a case alleging the unconstitutionality of issuing licenses to large corporations. These corporations want to explore the Arctic in search of untapped oil reserves. Advocacy groups claim that, if the Norwegian government issues the licenses, they ignore a constitutional commitment to a healthy citizenry and a productive and diverse environment.

Despite the uphill battles, some cases do find success. In the Netherlands, a court ruled that the Dutch government failed to decrease carbon emissions by 17% between 1990 and 2020. This failure, the court ruled, falls short of the government’s constitutional obligation to duty of care toward Dutch citizens.

Individual states and counties sued dozens of major carbon emitters. In California, some counties now take legal action against companies such as Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil. These California plaintiffs, including San Francisco and Oakland, seek damages proportional to each company’s share in pollution and negative environmental impact.

Though ambitious litigation seeks to improve ecological and environmental health on a widespread scale, international courts present formidable obstacles. Many dismiss any climate lawsuits as groundless, claiming that climatology deals primarily in probabilities and hypotheses rather than hard evidence. They further argue that it is impossible to measure the output of any one country’s or company’s emissions, making proportional damages a non-issue.

Environmental activism continues to evolve with the growing severity of climate change. The battle will not occur purely in the courtroom. It will use every tactic at its disposal, from the legal system, to organizations such as Greenpeace, to swaying the court of public opinion by educating people. What do you think about the trend of legal action taken against governments and corporations? Do you think that the courts should hold them legally responsible for their carbon emissions and environmental impact when it comes to contributing to global warming? Given the slow process of many legal proceedings, is such an approach even worthwhile? Share your thoughts and ideas with us in the comments

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