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One Way To Force The Government To Act On Climate Change: Take It To Court

A landmark case in the Netherlands will decide whether or not the government is violating human rights by not stopping emissions.

One Way To Force The Government To Act On Climate Change: Take It To Court
[Gavel: aluxum Shutterstock]

Fed up with political apathy about climate change, a group of 900 citizens is suing the Dutch government for not taking enough action to curb emissions. The lawsuit is the first case to argue that inaction on climate change is a violation of human rights.

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“I’m convinced that lawsuits like this are necessary,” says Dennis van Berkel, one of the lawyers for Urgenda, the group behind the lawsuit. “We have a tremendous amount of scientific proof about what climate change is, what causes it, and what the effects will be on human beings. … We have all of this science, and politics is aware of this science. Some deny it; others don’t deny it, but don’t act. “

The law can force action, he says. “There are fundamental rights that are just not in the sphere of politics–and if any right should be a fundamental right, it’s the right to a livable planet. Politics is about how we deal with a problem, not whether we deal with it. The role of the law, as I see it, is to say, ‘This is the problem: Deal with it.'”

The lawsuit relies in part on basic tort law about negligence. After the fourth UN climate report came out in 2007, arguing that developed countries need to slash carbon emissions by 25% to 40% by 2020 in order to keep global temperatures within a two-degree limit, the Dutch government acknowledged the science. So far, however, it has only taken small steps to reduce emissions. The government plans to adopt whatever international agreement comes out of the Paris climate talks later this year–but the plaintiffs argue they could, and should, act earlier.

“They’ve implicitly acknowledged the need to reduce emissions,” says van Berkel. “By not doing that, they’re breaching what in torts you call a general duty of care. It doesn’t have to do with damage already caused, but what will be caused. If you have a neighbor with a sick tree in his garden, you don’t have to wait for it to fall on your house before you can go to court. … That’s what we’re doing.”

The lawsuit also argues that inaction on climate action is a violation of human rights. Heat, rising seas, floods, smog, and risks to drinking water and food can all affect human health, a fundamental right under the Dutch constitution.

The same legal principles may apply in many other countries. “We’re trying to support others,” says van Berkel. “A tremendous amount of legal research has gone into our case, so we’re translating our documents into English so other lawyers and NGOs can use them.”

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Already, a group of 7,000 plaintiffs in Belgium has piggybacked on the research to sue their own government.

Could the same thing happen in the U.S.? “The short answer: I don’t think so,” says Michael Gerrard, a Columbia Law School professor who focuses on environmental and climate change law, and who helped co-author the Oslo Principles, a recent document that attempts to outline legal obligations relevant to climate change.

“U.S. courts have held that it is the job of Congress and EPA, not of the courts, to set the rules for greenhouse gas emissions,” he says, citing a 2011 Supreme Court case. “Because of the separation of powers doctrine, I think it’s unlikely that the U.S. courts would be following this precedent if and when it’s set, and judicially determining what greenhouse gas emissions would be.”

The Dutch verdict will be announced on June 24.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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