As the climate crisis intensifies, lawsuits aimed at slowing greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise

While most climate lawsuits have been filed in the United States, new lawsuits in places like Pakistan, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Colombia and Brazil have expanded the geographic reach of climate litigation, a new report has found.

Can you sue to save the world? As the global climate crisis intensifies, people are increasingly taking governments and corporations to court in a bid to slow runaway greenhouse gas emissions.

Most climate lawsuits have been filed in the United States, but recent years have brought an increase in litigation in low- and middle-income countries, according to a new report published by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy.

The report offers a snapshot of climate-related lawsuits around the globe. It found that some recent court cases have shed light on what climate change means for human rights, although no systematic research has yet established exactly how these lawsuits translate into action outside the courtroom.

Human rights are increasingly important in climate lawsuits, according to the report. In a key 2015 case, for example, a court in Pakistan pointed to “fundamental rights” and ruled in favor of a farmer who sued the government for failing to quickly implement the country’s climate policy. A stream of other lawsuitsinvestigations and international claims focus on human rights, and the report predicts that trend will extend into the future.

The report covers legal cases from two databases, Climate Change Laws of the World and U.S. Climate Change Litigation. It found that at least 28 countries and several international courts have heard roughly 1,330 climate cases. While plaintiffs have been largely activists, non-governmental organisations and local governments suing for stronger climate action, some of the cases covered in the report were filed by businesses and organisations challenging environmental regulation.

And what have the courts said? A review of U.S. lawsuits between 1990 and 2016 finds mixed results, with litigants that support more restrictive environmental regulation tending to lose cases slightly more often than anti-regulation litigants. But under the Trump administration, the report states, “no rollback of climate regulation brought before the courts has survived legal challenge.” Many cases, including the high-profile Juliana v. United States fight over whether greenhouse gas emissions violate the constitutional rights of young people, are still winding their way through the judicial system.

After the U.S., the jurisdictions home to the highest number of climate-related lawsuits are Australia, the EU, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and Spain. In the Netherlands, an environmental group sued in the first legal case to end with a ruling directing a government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than lawmakers had originally proclaimed.

While climate litigation is more common in wealthier countries responsible for a disproportionate share of emissions throughout history, other areas aren’t absent. The report says that climate lawsuits in low- and middle-income nations have grown in number and importance.

New lawsuits in places like Pakistan, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Colombia and Brazil have expanded the geographic reach of climate litigation. In 2018, for instance, the Supreme Court of Colombia ruled that climate change threatens the rights of young people, while also granting environmental personhood to the Colombian Amazon, declaring that the ecosystem has its own rights to conservation and restoration.

Lawsuits over the climate crisis could influence public policy, business decisions and media coverage in complex ways. But little research has been done on that influence, so the report calls for more study on how court cases shape the world “beyond the courtroom.” On the overall impact of climate litigation, the jury is still out — for now.

This story was written by Andrew Urevig and published with permission from Ensia.com

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