Time to sue governments for climate inaction? Dutch lawyer thinks so

Citizens should launch lawsuits against governments that shirk their climate change responsibilities, a leading lawyer has said after successfully suing the Dutch government.

Roger Cox surprised legal experts in June by winning a landmark case in The Netherlands, compelling the government to slash greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. It is currently on course to reduce emissions by 17 per cent by 2020.

It was the first time a court has determined what the minimum level of emissions reduction should be for a developed country by 2020, Cox told an audience in Toronto on Tuesday.

Filed on behalf of 900 Dutch citizens, his case deemed previous climate policies “hazardous negligence”, citing the government’s international obligations and its responsibilities to protect citizens from the dangers of global warming.

Tort law can be used to press governments into more adequate climate actions.

Roger Cox, Dutch lawyer

He is hoping activists in other countries will take similar legal action following the “precedent-setting” victory.

“Climate change isn’t just about drowning polar bears… it’s about our own lives and rights,” he said. “Tort law can be used to press governments into more adequate climate actions.”

Similar litigation is now under way in Belgium, and some environmentalists believe courts could prove a crucial venue to compel developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Following its defeat in court, the Dutch government said it would conform to the verdict, but is appealing, Cox said.

The Dutch government argued that it was not the cause of the climate crisis, but the court overruled that line of reasoning because governments are responsible for environmental regulations, he said.

From a legal perspective, few observers initially thought lawsuits against large tobacco companies would be successful, Cox said, but the courts sided with cancer victims, and the same thing could happen with governments and global warming.

Canadian legal experts who shared the stage with Cox were unsure the Dutch example could work in Canada, though others thought it could.

“Climate change litigation is inevitable,” said Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. “This is what is necessary to get the political leadership on board.”

World leaders will meet in Paris at a United Nations climate conference in December to try to negotiate a new deal to combat global warming.

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