What is Climate Legal Action

The issue on climate change touches upon several basic human rights not only enshrined in our civil laws and legislations but are in fact rooted in natural law itself. Moreover, principles of intergenerational equity and justice state that governments and the present generation have an important duty towards the future generations to leave a planet the way we found it when we were born. 

In this article we will briefly cover some of the main topics around climate change related human rights and available legal actions.

Following are some of the rights that are protected by different bodies of law all around the world and that have been deeply compromised by the consequences of the warming of our planet and the pollution of our air caused by human activities:

  • the basic right to life, 
  • right to healthful ecology, 
  • right to security, 
  • right to safe and adequate food, 
  • and right to safe and accessible water sources, among others.

As mentioned above, these rights have been deeply affected by the continuous increase of carbon dioxide and other climate-warming gasses. The main contributors to these emissions are corporates still relying on fossil fuels to create energy, and governments who are reluctant to take drastic measures in order to reduce these destructive emissions.

In order to protect these fundamental human rights and force a drastic governmental and corporate shift towards, a more sustainable way of creating energy and run businesses, in recent years legal actions all over the world started to take place. Whether pending or concluded, these actions in Court have proved that pursuing legal actions had enormous effects, not only on the corporate players but also on the governments. That said, let’s look at the possible outcomes of climate change legal disputes and other actions taken against governments and corporations. 

  1. Challenging climate change-related legislation and policies, or their application. In some cases, courts direct government officials and government offices to take a proactive approach and to fulfill their obligations to preserve and protect not only its people but also the place where the people live. Thus, legislative bodies are oftentimes pressured to review existing laws and regulations to address these environmental issues and create new laws when necessary. 
  2. Preventing future emissions and contributions to climate change. In most class suits initiated by interested stakeholders, the party litigants ask that certain activities and factors be stopped and prohibited insofar as such actions are destructive to the environment. Consequently, when such activities are proven to have been causing and contributing to the pollution and destruction of the environment, courts and government agencies are mandated to issue orders prohibiting others from doing such similar activities. Moreover, these actions and orders serve as deterrents to others who wish to engage in similar destructive actions, thus, effectively prevent future breaches.   
  3. Requiring governments or regulators to take action to meet national or international commitments. As a form of policy building and enforcement, certain governments and regulators are encouraged and, sometimes, even obligated to fulfill its obligations and duties to their constituents and even to the international community. These include passing pieces of legislations or signing and ratifying agreements and declarations aimed to address climate change.  
  4. Raising awareness and exerting pressure on corporate actors, regulators, or investors. In the fast-paced world of today, it gets increasingly hard to focus on other matters which have somehow made their way in the background. This is especially true for the government and corporate actors or investors who are preoccupied addressing other areas they are tasked to address. With these legal actions, however, issues on climate change are again brought into the foreground. Consequently, these governments, industry players, as well as investors are becoming more socially aware of the environmental issues and who are likewise pressured to address climate change.   
  5. Compensation for the costs of adaptation to climate change. In actions against the government and/or corporate violators, courts are likely to award damages to compensate for the injury and harm inflicted on the environment as well as for the reparation of the adverse effects on the people affected caused by such acts. 

All of the above are very powerful ways to influence change, and force long-lasting commitments. Nevertheless, challenging already existing climate change related legislation and forcing new strict legislations are the most effective measures that could bring drastic changes in the near future.

For instance, one important lawsuit demonstrating the above-mentioned effects (Point 1) is the Climate Case of Urgenda previously mentioned in this article. While the case is still pending on technicalities grounds, it cannot be denied that government players are now more aware of their legal obligation to protect the earth. These effects of this and other cases cascade not only to the whole of the government sectors but the pressure is also on for the corporate and private sectors who are likewise made more aware of the issue and the need for sudden changes. 

This awareness alone is already a victory on the part of the us as citizens and the environment. Nevertheless, we all positively await the day that the Dutch Supreme Court finally rules that, indeed, the Dutch government had the legal obligation and duty to protect its citizens, including the right to enforce sanctions on polluters and environmental infractors, with a view of proactively engaging in global policy making and reduction CO2 emissions in a global scale.   

In the meantime, the least we can do is to spread the world about these matters and the rights we have, which is brought before a Court can not only protect us, but the entire planet.  If you feel you or the community around you as been affected by the consequences of the warming of our planet such as extreme weather conditions, floods, loss of fertile land due to desertification, unsuccessful harvests due to prolonged heat-waves, reach out to us and we will help you connect with legal professionals in your jurisdiction who are experienced in protecting your rights and the environment.