If governments won’t respond to the threat of climate change on their own, perhaps the legal system will force them into it. That’s the possibility raised by a first-of-its-kind verdict in a court case in the Netherlands, which will require the Dutch government to be more aggressive in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. It could be the first of many such cases around the world.
As Co.Exist wrote previously, a group of 900 citizens brought a lawsuit against the Dutch state, arguing that its efforts to slow emissions were insufficient to safeguard their human rights. The lawsuit was based on the scientific consensus that developed countries need to slow their emissions by as much as 40% by 2020 if the world is to stay within relatively safe temperature increases. The Dutch had planned to cut by 14% to 17% relative to 1990 levels. The court has said it needs to cut by at least 25% by that time.
“This makes it crystal clear that climate change is a huge problem that needs to be dealt with much more effectively, and that states can no longer afford inaction,” says Marjan Minnesma, leader of Urgenda, the group behind the action. “States are meant to protect their citizens, and if politicians will not do this of their own accord, then the courts are there to help.”
Urgenda first brought the case back in 2013 and fought for two years just to get The Hague District Court to hear it. In their statement announcing the verdict, the judges said: “The state must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment.”
Lawyers for Urgenda say the decision could be helpful in other cases, including a similar one now proceeding in Belgium. “Before this judgement, the only legal obligations on states were those they agreed among themselves in international treaties,” Dennis van Berkel, a lawyer for Urgenda, told The Guardian. “This is the first a time a court has determined that states have an independent legal obligation towards their citizens.”
Though the case is the first significant victory for climate activists in the courts, it’s far from the first case. Campaigners have long dreamed of bringing actions against big emitters, like oil companies, arguing their products do unacknowledged harm. Some see parallels with the massive tobacco lawsuits of the late-1990s. In those cases, companies were held liable not for the harm they allegedly do, but because they knew they were doing harm and yet chose to hide the fact.
The best known climate case was brought by the tiny community of Kivalina off the coast of Alaska. It argued that 24 fossil fuel companies had destroyed its environment and sought damages. But the court threw the case out. Indeed, the difficulty for plaintiffs is in drawing a line between cause and effect–that such a ton of CO2 led to such an outcome. But cases against governments won’t have to meet that test. Plaintiffs may just have to show that harm is being done and that governments are not reacting sufficiently.