Ordinary citizens including children are using the courts to force governments to act on climate change. A number of lawsuits and some early judgements suggests that the courts may be able to spur significant climate action.
In August a group of 21 children, supported by renowned climate scientist James Hansen, filed a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit against the federal government.
This lawsuit and others like it argue that weak action on climate change is a violation of the right to life, liberty and property. They assert that the federal government failed to protect essential public trust resources. They further allege that the government’s promotion and development of fossil fuels is a violation of the constitutional rights of citizens and young people in particular.
These young plaintiffs are demanding significant reductions in greenhouse gases (GHGs), not only for themselves but for future generations.
As the leading source of GHGs the fossil fuel industry is understandably nervous. If successful this lawsuit and others like it could significantly diminish the prominent role that fossil fuels play in our economy. The fossil fuel industry knows what is at stake so they have come together and filed a joint motion that would allow them to join the Obama administration’s fight against the lawsuit. While the children are not expected to win this time there have been successful outcomes in other parts of the world.
A citizen lawsuit in the Netherlands forced the Dutch government to increase its greenhouse gas emissions reduction and set a powerful precedent in the process. This outcome will have implications for the whole of Europe.
Recently, Hallie Turner, a 13 year old girl from Raleigh, filed a law suit in North Carolina to force that state to reduce carbon emissions by at least 4 percent each year.
Another ruling in Washington bodes well for Turner’s case and the future of climate change lawsuits across the US. On November 19th in Seattle, Washington, Kings County Superior Court Judge Hollis R. Rill issued a president setting verdict. His ruling upheld the right of young people to demand more cuts to greenhouse gases a a carbon emissions rule from the Washington Department of Ecology. The suit was filed on behalf of eight young people and future generations.
Judge Hill declared:
“[the youths] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming…before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late…the state has a constitutional obligation to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people.”
The is a landmark ruling that will resonate across America. Governments have a “mandatory duty” to ensure a level of air quality that is not injurious to the health of current and future generations. The repercussions of similar judgements elsewhere in America and around the world could prove to be devastating to the fossil fuel industry.
At the very least these lawsuits will add even more pressure on governments to act on climate change at COP21.
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