Legal battle to stem climate change takes crucial turn
In another case, a Dutch court has ordered oil major Shell to comply with the Paris Agreement and reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030.
The Climate Change battle has finally reached the shores of the First World. The fallout of destructive wildfires, extreme heat, flooding and scorching drought – that has killed thousands in the back of beyond in Africa, or Pakistan and India – is now overwhelming Europe, Canada and the US. Europe’s chickens have come home to roost.
In an import gesture of defiance, 6 young persons aged 11 to 24 from various regions in Portugal have filed cases against 32 European governments. They charge these countries of not working fast enough to stem climate change; and therebyviolate the fundamental rights to life, and to their physical and mental wellbeing.
It is the largest ever climate change challenge to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. A ruling is expected by early 2024. Fought by the British Global Legal Action Network, if the case is upheld it could mean governments, through their national courts, will be directed to cut carbon emissions with specific targets.
Portugal, where these young people hail from, has been overwhelmed by wildfires in the last few years. Eleven years old Marina, one of the petitioners, recalls her trauma when in 2017 her region saw 50,000 acres of forest burnt to cinders, and her home threatened with ash and heat. This year too, parts of Portugal hit 46 degrees C, and over 15,000 acres was lost to wildfires. The story has been the same in Spain and Canada.
First World stirs
Climate Change creates extreme weather events, and much of Europe has simultaneously suffered from unexpected floods caused by cloudbursts and rivers breaching their embankments. In July 2021 for instance, Germany, Croatia, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands saw flash floods that swept away homes and cars in minutes. Some 250 people died, most of them in Germany.
It is however ironical that the world’s conscience wakes up only when Europe or Australia feel the pain. The White Man remained unmoved when millions of locusts invaded the Horn of Africa, destroying thousands of miles of vegetation and crops, and threatening food security and livelihood.
Or, consider the fact that there is very little aid flowing to Pakistan, a country that suffered the effect of devastating rains and floods in 2022. The flood havoc took more than 1,700 lives and uprooted over 33 million people. Nature metes out cruel justice. But in the process it does not recognize caste or colour when the glaciers start to melt and the levels of the oceans rise and threaten coastal communities. In a tragic sort of way, Climate Change is equalizing the world and goading those who matter to act faster.
The filing of cases against 32 powerful European governments, though symbolic, has brought home some important lessons. Despite all the talk at the UN’s Conference of Parties (COP) to contain Climate Change, precious little has been done by the governments of the developed world to meet the ‘Paris Agreement’ target of containing global warming to 1.5 deg C above the temperature reached during the Industrial Revolution.
It is now more or less certain, environmental scientists say, that containing global warming to 1.5 deg C will be breached by 2030 and could reach 3 deg C by the end of the century. It is this yawning gap between the fiction of big commitments and the fact of a collapsing climate system that will haunt the coming Climate Change conference (COP28) due to start in Dubai from 30 November.
New international law
In this context, the 6 young people who have dragged 32 governments to court, heralds a new turn in the battle against Climate Change – the increasing private litigation against governments and the private corporate sector seeking compliance of environmental laws. More important, the battle against global warming is no more an outlier challenge, but a fight to uphold human rights.
A UN report – the Global Climate Change Litigation Report 2023 - saysthe total number of climate change cases has more than doubled from 884 in 2017 to 2,180 in 2022. As climate litigation increases in frequency and volume, the body of legal precedent grows, forming an increasingly well-defined field of law.
“People are increasingly turning to courts to combat the climate crisis, holding governments and the private sector accountable and making litigation a key mechanism for securing climate action and promoting climate justice,” says Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP).
Some examples of the growing Climate Change-related international law include a recent ruling by Brazil’s Supreme Court holding that the Paris Climate Agreement is a human rights treaty, which enjoys “supranational” status.
In another case, a Dutch court has ordered oil major Shell to comply with the Paris Agreement and reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent from 2019 levels by 2030. This is the first time a court has found a private company to have a ‘duty’ under the Paris Agreement. Polluters must pay, or it is Armageddon in the next few decades.