A new study shows an increasing amount of litigation worldwide calling on governments to address and adapt to climate change. The research, by UN Environment and Columbia law school, shows action by citizens and environmental groups in three times as many countries as in 2014, calling for action to combat rising sea levels, the effects of coal-fired power plants, oil drilling, and other issues related to global climate change.
UN Environment head Erik Solheim said:
“It’s patently clear we need more concrete action on climate change, including addressing the root causes and helping communities adapt to the consequences. The science can stand up in a court of law, and governments need to make sure their responses to the problem do too.”
654 of the climate-related cases were filed in the US, three times the amount of cases in the rest of the world combined. Some of these cases were important catalysts for action, such as a 2007 case in which states and cities demanded the Environmental Protection Agency take steps to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled against the Bush administration, with the EPA designating greenhouse gases as a threat to public health, and opening the door to later action by the Obama administration.
Some cases are still ongoing, such as the 21 children suing the federal government on the basis that a failure to address climate change robs them of their constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Sierra Club said the case would “upend climate law as we know it” if it succeeds.
With 80 cases in Australia, and 49 cases in the UK, these English-speaking countries are the nations with the next most litigation addressing climate change. In Oceania, issues surround “climate refugees” are beginning to gain legal traction, as citizens of low lying Pacific islands seek refuge in New Zealand and Australia. In New Zealand, one case involved a man from Kiribati requesting refugee status.
Other parts of the world have seen a similar, if less dramatic, increase in these cases. In Austria, advocates overturned the approval of a third runway at Vienna’s primary airport. In Pakistan, a farmer won a case against the government over their “delay and lethargy” in adapting to climate change.
Some cases have not been as successful, including many cases against companies instead of governments.
Michael Burger, who is the executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia, explained:
“We haven’t seen any major wins filed in actions against fossil fuel companies but there have been successes in lawsuits against governments. A lot of this legal action is in the US because America is a litigious society but also because there is such a partisan divide over the fundamental reality of climate change, which doesn’t really exist elsewhere in the world.”