It’s no secret that climate change is a widespread issue that needs to be tackled from various angles to make effective change. Often, climate action is seen in two spheres: what the public can do on an individual level and what governments and world leaders can do. But can private citizens impact the way the government tackles climate change directly?
While voting and other forms of civic engagement like protesting are the first steps in expressing thoughts and opinions to the government, actions such as lawsuits take it a step further. In recent years, there have been many private lawsuits encouraging countries to handle climate change better than they historically have and pointing out the flaws in their current and previous policies.
While lawsuits aren’t the only way to make governments participate in positive change, they can be a unique way to express the public’s desires and values. How well they work depends upon numerous factors. They often at least succeed at capturing public attention and alerting the government to changes that are most important to its citizens. Lawsuits provide an opportunity for accountability, whether or not governments take it.
Climate change lawsuits are often brought forth by a collection or group of citizens. One of the most highly discussed cases was one filed by 900 Dutch citizens. Another was filed in the United States by 21 young Americans. This tends to be common practice, as it offers more support.
The wave of suits being filed by private citizens isn’t projected to stop anytime soon. Similar suits have occurred in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and other countries in addition to the United States.
Most of the suits are filed against the governments themselves, though they hold origins from the many climate lawsuits filed against corporations that have been continuing for years now.
Although the most notable suit was filed by 21 young Americans — Juliana v. United States — there have been similar suits in eight cities around the United States, as well as five other countries. This points to the fact that these cases must be making some form of successful change.
While climate change hasn’t always been explored in this way in the courts, judicial systems are adapting to it. Even with wins, judges have often found difficulty applying judicial procedures to remedy the situation. However, the IBA has released a model for filing and proceeding with a lawsuit on climate change against a government, which shows the movement is consistently validated.
One of the main questions people often have regarding climate lawsuits is how effective they are in practice. Just like any government policy and judicial system, that can change from state to state and country to country.
Climate change lawsuits are making their way into the judicial system slowly. Because of this, even a technical win might not guarantee effective changes because governments aren’t entities like companies or people. Standard judicial action can’t impact these governments in the same way it would for lawsuits that can easily prove negligence through causation and damages.
However, there are plenty of instances where climate change lawsuits do enact real, positive changes. After the Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands case filed by 900 citizens, the Dutch supreme court ordered that the government reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% — compared to 1990 emissions levels — by the end of 2020 to protect its citizens from the harms of climate change.
Similar results to this case have also been seen in Colombia, where their supreme court took measures to decrease deforestation of the Amazon based on a suit from the private sector. This goes to show that even if the change is gradual, it’s still progressing.
Climate change lawsuits often do work, even if their methods don’t always align with the traditional metrics of the court system. This is especially because the reparations requested aren’t monetary or legality based — they are action based changes contributing to a wider cause.
Although climate change lawsuits are a newer phenomenon, they seem like they’re here to stay, especially with many global courts adapting to granting physical reparations like policy and action on the government’s side. Climate lawsuits and legislation capture public attention and create real change in governments.