The issue of climate change is inescapable in our current world. It is becoming more and more important, and its ramifications increasingly affect people from around the globe. In the legal market, its relevance is strongly evident in reports from interviewees across a range of jurisdictions who cite a rise in media scrutiny, and polarisation around discussions of governmental regulation.
Just as climate change informs the legal market, legal decisions influence governmental approaches to addressing the problems caused by climate change. A clear example of this is the Urgenda case in the Netherlands where a Dutch NGO sued the government, successfully claiming that it has a duty to protect the human rights of its citizens against the dangerous effects of climate change. In May 2019, the government appealed to the Supreme Court who will release their decision on the matter in the coming months. The unique nature of the case is not just influencing policy, but the legal market itself. One practitioner based in Belgium noted that the Urgenda case has “sparked a variety of clients” who are seeking to use “litigation to force legislation to change”.
After the Urgenda case was first filed in 2015, other jurisdictions have seen disputes being brought in the same vein. A constitutional climate change case in the USA, Juliana v United States, was heard in June 2019 and turned on the same issue of the government’s failure to address dangerous climate change as violating the rights of its citizens. While the litigation is currently stayed and likely to be dropped by the courts, it is nonetheless significant for the jurisdiction as a serious effort to use litigation as a tool for galvanising governmental efforts to address the effects of climate change. In Germany, a Peruvian citizen has brought a case against the utility company RWE, arguing its carbon dioxide emissions have contributed to the increased risks he faces on his Andean farm from climate change-related natural disasters. The case is innovative for a number of reasons, not least because it acknowledges the global impacts of a company’s CO2 emissions as well as allowing an individual to sue a company based on climate change issues.
These cases represent an increased focus on the importance of litigation as a tool for changing the behaviour of governments and businesses alike, regarding their environmental policies. While they may not all be successful, practitioners nonetheless note “the increased rate of high-profile litigation to either block projects or raise the standing of matters”, reflecting the critical role litigation has in this changing world.