Climate Cases Are Catching Fire Across the Globe

With the increasing number of cases and diverse legal arguments, litigation is becoming a powerful tool to hold governments, corporations, and financial institutions accountable.

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European Human Rights Court Hears Historic Climate Case Brought by Elderly Swiss Women (Photo: KlimaSeniorinnen/Twitter)

At the end of June, the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics (LSE) launched its annual report on climate litigation. This report offers a comprehensive synthesis of the latest research and developments in the climate change litigation field and outlines general trends while delving into cases filed within the past 12 months.

The report is based on data from the Sabin Center, which has documented 2,341 climate change cases to date. In the past year alone, 190 new cases have been filed. From Bulgaria to China, Finland to Turkey, climate change litigation has expanded its global reach. The 58-page report digs into all the details you could ever need, but here’s a quick summary of climate litigation trends and the reasons why I think climate litigation is growing right now.

Climate cases are both growing and diversifying

While the majority of climate cases are still filed in the Global North, we are now seeing new cases emerge in the Global South as well, with a particular focus on human and constitutional rights as the basis for legal arguments. The emergence of climate litigation in the Global South indicates a shift toward a more inclusive and diverse movement.

In recent years, there has been a growing movement to hold corporations accountable for the harm caused by climate change that has resulted from their products. Globally, approximately 60 cases have been filed against the major carbon-emitting companies known as “Carbon Majors,” with many of these cases originating in U.S. cities, states, and territories. These lawsuits aim to establish corporate legal responsibility for the adverse impacts of climate change and push for transformative action to mitigate its effects. However, cases are now moving beyond the Carbon Majors to include other corporate actors such as airlines and fast fashion. By pursuing legal avenues, communities and governments are seeking justice and advocating for a more sustainable future.

We are also seeing a growing focus on acknowledging and addressing current and past harms to people and communities through climate litigation. Cases like Asmania v. Holcim in Switzerland have brought attention to the damages already experienced as a result of climate-related events. Arguments regarding loss and damage are becoming more prevalent, particularly in cases that follow the “polluter pays” principle. An example of this is the lawsuit Municipalities of Puerto Rico v. Exxon Mobil Corp., which establishes a connection between the impacts of hurricanes and the losses suffered by affected communities. By highlighting these losses, climate litigation seeks to hold the responsible parties accountable and address the urgent need for compensation and support for the affected communities.

In the past 12 months there have been significant developments in government framework cases, also known as systemic climate litigation or Urgenda-style cases. The Grantham report shows that domestic legal protections, such as the right to a healthy environment, and climate legislation within countries are playing a critical role in cases against governments. And challenges to the climate policy responses of governments and companies outside the United States have significantly increased.

Additionally, litigation related to investment decisions is also on the rise. These cases help establish clear parameters for decision-making in the context of climate change, ensuring that climate considerations are taken into account when making investment choices.

With cases emerging in new jurisdictions and novel legal arguments being presented, the landscape of climate litigation is evolving. As the fight against climate change intensifies, litigation continues to be a powerful tool for holding governments, corporations, and financial institutions accountable and driving the changes needed to adapt to and/or mitigate the impacts of climate change. You can learn more about this year’s trends in the Grantham Research Institute report here.

Four key factors driving the increase in litigation

The Grantham report clearly shows an increasing number of communities are turning to the courts for justice and restitution. This surge can be attributed to four key factors:

1. The unfortunate reality that more and more people are facing devastating impacts from climate change. As the impacts intensify, communities are increasingly seeking justice and restitution through the courts. They are backed by the firm scientific consensus on the causes and effects of climate change, heightening awareness of the dangers to people and ecosystems, and recognition of the need for swifter and more ambitious action.

2. The failure of governments and corporations to adequately tackle climate change has created a sense of urgency among affected communities. This frustration with the lack of meaningful action has propelled individuals and organizations to turn to the courts as a crucial avenue for recourse.

3. Significant advancements in legal strategies have played a pivotal role in the increased effectiveness of climate litigation. As cases develop, jurisdictions are learning from each other to help develop effective cases in new areas.

4. The scientific community has made significant strides in bolstering climate cases through groundbreaking research. Two areas in particular have revolutionized the field: attribution science and climate obstruction research. These scientific advancements provide powerful evidence and support for litigation, enabling a more comprehensive understanding of the links between human activities, climate change, and the resulting impacts.

The landscape of climate litigation is rapidly expanding and evolving around the world. With the increasing number of cases and diverse legal arguments, litigation is becoming a powerful tool to hold governments, corporations, and financial institutions accountable for their contributions to climate change. In fact, the Grantham report shows that these cases have far-reaching impacts: yielding direct judicial outcomes favoring climate action, while also influencing decisionmaking beyond the courtroom. I’ll talk more about this in my next blog.

You can play a part

With these developments, we can continue to push for a sustainable and just future, where accountability and action are at the forefront of our fight against climate change. If you want regular updates on climate litigation please sign up for our newsletter.

Also, stay tuned for our fall 2023 webinar series on Science and Climate Litigation. This interactive series will feature experts sharing insight into the field of climate litigation, alongside skill-building workshops for scientists and practitioners interested in engaging in this work. Climate litigation is an exciting and rapidly expanding field, offering an abundance of opportunities for people with relevant expertise to contribute meaningfully toward environmental justice.

Delta Merner is the lead scientist for the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Union Of Concerned Scientists/Blog

© 2023 Union of Concerned Scientists

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