activism climate change

The legal challenge to climate change

There are many fronts on which to fight climate change, including mass mobilisations, new technologies, personal behaviour, or government targets. The legal front is another. It’s often been discussed, and occasionally made the headlines, but it’s never quite hit the big leagues.

Many draw parallels between the fossil fuel companies and tobacco companies, both of which have deliberately misled the public over the effects of their products. The tobacco industry has been successfully sued for this in the past, and the fossil fuel companies could face a similar reckoning. Governments could also be sued for ignoring or suppressing action on climate change. A legal showdown over climate change could be very powerful, and we may be about to get one. There are a handful of high profile cases worth keeping an eye on at the moment:

  • Perhaps the most successful case so far was a group of 900 citizens of the Netherlands who used the courts to press the government to raise their climate targets. The court rules in their favour, making it the first time a government had been sued over climate change. The court ordered them to raise the target from 20 to 25% CO2 reductions by 2020. The government has appealed, and we will find out in May what the result will be.
  • In January the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, announced that the city was divesting from fossil fuels and suing the world’s top five fossil fuel companies. “It’s time for them to start paying for the damage they’ve done” he said. With the legal firepower of New York in play, this one could be a game changer.
  • Twenty young Americans are bringing the US government to court to force them to take action on climate change. By arguing out the facts of climate change in a court of law, they hope to set a legal precedent that will make inaction impossible in future. Dr James Hansen’s granddaughter is one of the plaintiffs, making this a case with some serious climate change expertise behind it.
  • Perhaps the most notable case could potentially be Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stated last month that he was going to sue the fossil fuel companies. He’s very outspoken about it, accusing the oil companies of killing people, and his celebrity status could make this the most attention-seeking case of them all. But Arnie hasn’t brought it yet, so it’s one to look out for in future.

Other similar cases haven’t come to much yet. Greenpeace Norway failed to stop oil industry expansion in the Arctic, but they are appealing. On the other hand, successful legal challenges are thwarting specific Trump administration anti-climate measures. Several Californian cities are lining up against oil companies, and Exxon has been trying to stop New York and Massachusetts from suing them. These cases could go either way, but it feels like a landmark case may be close. And typically, a succesful case of this kind would be followed by many others making use of the precedent. That could put a serious dent in fossil fuel company fortunes, deterring invesment and hastening the shift away from fossil energy. But for now, we will have to wait and see.


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