TIME Magazine: Litigation is a Powerful Tool for Holding Those Responsible for the Climate Crisis to Account

Original article published here 25 September 2019; author Tessa Khan: Ms. Khan is an international human rights lawyer working on climate litigation and co-director of the Climate Litigation Network.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the roaring climate strikes all over the world ahead of the U.N. Climate Summit last week and the austere discipline of a courtroom. But these days the same demand is ringing out in streets and in courts: those responsible for the climate crisis must be held accountable.

At key moments in our history, notably in fights for racial and gender equality, courts have helped to accelerate social change. Litigation that is driven by those most affected has personalized abstract injustices, put facts on the public record, and exposed misinformation and political spin. It has also given the imprimatur of a formal hearing to the righteous demands of social movements. For the global movement for climate justice, these cases also help to drive a clear narrative of responsibility: as much as we have been made to grapple with our individual guilt, the truth is that governments and the fossil fuel industry bear the real responsibility for this crisis. Moreover, they know—and have known for decades—what they need to do to get us out of it.

The power of litigation to throw a wrench into the dangerous business-as-usual machinery of governments was first made clear in 2015. Less than two years after environmental group, the Urgenda Foundation and 886 Dutch citizens filed a lawsuit against the government of the Netherlands for its inaction on climate change, a Dutch District Court issued a groundbreaking decision. It found that the government’s failure to take reasonable steps to avoid dangerous levels of climate change was unlawful and ordered it to significantly reduce the Netherlands’ emissions by 2020.

Although the Dutch government appealed the decision, it agreed to implement the court’s order in response to the intense public spotlight that the lawsuit trained on its climate policy. Since 2015, the Dutch parliament has taken a range of measures to reduce emissions, including closing at least one coal-fired power plant, and has enacted some of the most ambitious climate policies in Europe. In 2018, a Court of Appeal emphatically upheld the original decision, citing the human rights obligations of the government. A final appeal by the government will be decided by the Dutch Supreme Court at the end of the year. At this point, the transformative political impact of the litigation is beyond dispute.

Urgenda’s case proved that governments cannot escape legal responsibility for the decades of promises that they have made to address climate change. Those promises date back to at least 1992, when the first international treaty on climate change committed governments to ‘stabilizing’ the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with rich countries taking the lead. In the 37 years since, we have moved at a terrifying pace in the opposite direction. The concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is higher now than it has been for millions of years and climate change has destabilized and devastated communities all over the world, punishing those who have contributed the least to our planet over-heating. 

At the same time, the fossil fuel industry has continued to extract and sell products that its own scientists warned decades ago will have catastrophic consequences for humanity. A recent study confirmed that 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced to just 100 fossil fuel producers. It should therefore come as no surprise that people around the world, from typhoon-devastated communities in the Philippines, to a Peruvian farmer watching local glaciers disappear, to coastal cities in the US at risk of sea level rise, are taking oil and gas companies to court as well.

For more, full article link here.

@UDAPT representative Letty Fajardo at the 2019 Global Climate Strike in Amsterdam

7 Things Lawyers can do to Support the Global Climate Strike by climate justice.org.au

Published on the Climate Justice Blog, original article 18 September 2019, link here, re-posted with permission

By Dr Keely Boom

The Global Climate Strike is a wake up call to the world to stop the climate crisis. Students around the world are fighting for climate justice, with three clear demands: (1) transition to 100% renewable energy; (2) keep fossil fuels in the ground; and (3) help victims of climate change.

These young people are now leading the greatest social justice movement that the world has ever seen. This is a critical point in time where we have the opportunity to address climate change. But if we fail, the consequences will be devastating.

So, if you are a lawyer who wants to support the Global Climate Strike, what can you do?

1: READ THE SCIENCE

Teen activist Greta Thunberg has described climate change as an ‘existential threat’ and called upon leaders to ‘listen to the scientists’. The starting point is to read the latest reports from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The IPCC stated in 2014 that the world is on the path to ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts’ of human-caused climate change.

2: JOIN THE GLOBAL CLIMATE STRIKE

The students who are planning to march at the upcoming Global Climate Strike have urged adults to join them. The climate emergency threatens all of us. If we want to fight for climate justice, we can show our support by marching in the streets alongside the students.

3: DECLARE A CLIMATE EMERGENCY

If you hold a university position, you can ask your university to declare a climate emergency – just as Newcastle Law School has done. Your law firm could declare a climate emergency. You could join efforts to ask governments and other bodies like the Law Council of Australia to declare a climate emergency. At a personal level, you can commit to take emergency action through using your unique legal skills and experience to fight climate change.

4: BECOME A LEGAL OBSERVER

As a lawyer, or even a law student, you could choose to attend the Global Climate Strike as a Legal Observer. As a Legal Observer, you would not be participating in the strike, but instead observing any police interaction with the protestors. In some places there are already Legal Observer groups that you could join. Or you might want to start your own group to provide independent observation in your local area and train other lawyers in how to be a Legal Observer.

5: DEFEND CLIMATE ACTIVISTS IN COURT

Climate activists who engage in civil disobedience may be charged with offences. Young students may have little understanding of the legal system or their rights. Activists are unlikely to have resources to obtain private representation. As a lawyer you could provide legal advice and representation to activists engaged in the Global Climate Strike who face criminal law proceedings. There may also be activists who require legal advice around their rights at their workplace if they do not have the permission of their employers to do so.

6: BRING INNOVATIVE CLIMATE LITIGATION

As governments fail to meet the challenge of the climate crisis, climate litigation has spread around the globe. Young people in the US have brought lawsuits against governments over inaction. A farmer from Peru is suing a German utility company. The Philippines Human Rights Commission is investigating the world’s Big Oil, Coal and Gas producers for allegedly causing human rights violations. Climate litigation is a powerful tool in the fight for climate justice. You may be able to provide advice and represent communities and others seeking climate justice.

7: SUPPORT LEGAL REFORM

It is clear that our current legal system is failing to adequately address the climate crisis. We must reform our law to enable the emergency action that is required, while also safeguarding human rights and civil liberties. Lawyers have an important role in the urgent reform of legal systems around the world.

Take the opportunity this Global Climate Strike day to utilise your unique legal skills, experience and networks to address the climate crisis. 

We need everyone, including lawyers, to join the movement and ensure a safe climate for our children and all future generations.

Global Climate Strike to be held from 20 September to 27 September, 2019