When Serge de Gheldere decided - along with a dozen other Belgian citizens - to take the government to court in 2014 alleging climate inaction, he didn’t imagine he would still be fighting the case in 2023 and with more than 70,000 co-plaintiffs.
“I thought we had a good chance of nailing this (quickly),” he told Context. “In the past, it has worked to use the law to bring about societal advances.”
The long-running “Klimaatzaak” or Climate Affair case, in which de Gheldere wants an appeals court to order Belgium to make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, is part of a rising tide of climate change litigation around the world.
The cumulative number of cases globally has more than doubled since 2015 to nearly 2,200, according to a database collected by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at New York’s Columbia University.
Many such cases are brought by non-profits or individuals frustrated with a lack of progress from governments in tackling the climate crisis, as the world suffers more severe heatwaves, floods, storms, droughts and wildfires.
Michael Burger, the Sabin Center’s director, said people resort to the courts “when other systems fail”.
“Rolling the dice on a judge’s decision - taking the time and resources that it takes to litigate - is not the most efficient way to get to solutions to this global crisis,” he said.
But more and more climate battles are reaching the court-room, pulling in activists young and old, farmers, scientists, fossil fuel firms and even litigation investors looking to make a profit from a cut of climate damages awarded to their clients.
Money matters when it comes to climate lawsuits - from the funding to cover costs in often lengthy legal processes, to potential payouts that could reach into the billions of dollars.
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