Why global warming lawsuits are gaining traction in courtrooms around the world.
Negotiators at the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, Germany, last week made some incremental progress toward fulfilling the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit global warming. But the intensifying urgency of the climate crisis requires bigger and bolder steps, including more lawsuits, according to a group of legal experts who met on November 15th in the basement of a converted church in downtown Bonn.
“We have a strong message for climate polluters: We’ll see you in court,” said Fijian activist Makereta Waqavonovono, a legal practitioner with the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network who made it clear that Fiji expects help from wealthier countries to pay for relocating about 800 coastal villages that will be flooded by rising sea levels in the next few decades.
At the panel, organized by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, climate activists and attorneys said that, as international climate policy keeps failing, litigation is becoming an increasingly important part of the strategy to force reductions of dangerous heat-trapping greenhouse gases—and to hold climate polluters financially accountable for the damage they’ve caused.
At the talks in Bonn, the question of compensation—Loss and Damage, in negotiator jargon—was once again shunted aside for the most part, said Naomi Ages, a climate liability expert with Greenpeace USA.
“Sometime soon there has to be a day of reckoning. Who’s going to pay for the climate damage already caused?” she said. “All governments are obligated to consider the human rights aspects of climate change, and the International Criminal Court has said that climate change is a possible reason for charges on crimes against humanity,” she added…
WILL LAW DRIVE POLICY?
Muffet tells Pacific Standard that it’s only a matter of time before the first major judgments in climate law cases start to trigger a tectonic shift in policy and in energy markets. And new research by his organization, identifying thousands of potentially incriminating documents in the Smoke and Fumes report released last week, will help provide the legal foundation for such cases, by showing that oil companies and governments knew about the potential harm and did nothing to avoid or reduce the risk.
That trail of evidence goes back to the 1940s and can be used in court by plaintiffs looking to hold big polluters and governments accountable for climate change loss and damage, Muffet says.
“By 1968, we can demonstrate the industry as a whole was on notice. We can demonstrate they had the opportunity to take another path. One of the things they could have done was to warn the public, but they did not. They did the opposite. Not only did they fail to act, you can demonstrate culpable conduct over years,” Muffet says, referring to years of misinformation campaigns by the oil industry.
The first few major judgments have the potential to fundamentally change the political and economic landscape, driving investment dollars away from fossil fuels in droves.
“Once the money starts to move, the energy system will start to move, too, and exposing the risks is key part of that,” Muffet says.