Climate Change Lawsuits More Than Double in 5 Years, UN Report Finds
As the climate crisis escalates, there have been a growing number of court cases having to do with climate change. Since 2017, the number of climate cases has more than doubled, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
The increasing number of climate change cases indicates that climate-related lawsuits are becoming an essential component of ensuring climate justice.
The Global Climate Litigation Report: 2023 Status Review — based on an evaluation of climate change law, science or policy cases collected through the end of December, 2022, by the Sabin Center’s U.S. and Global Climate Change Litigation Databases — was published today. It is the day before the first anniversary of a declaration by the UN General Assembly that access to a healthy and clean environment is a universal human right, a press release from the UN Environment Programme said.
“Climate policies are far behind what is needed to keep global temperatures below the 1.5°C threshold, with extreme weather events and searing heat already baking our planet,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, in the press release. “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.”
As climate litigation continues, the legal precedent accumulates, creating a robust body of law. The UN report gives a summary of important climate litigation over the past two years, including some historic cases.
Some of the major climate litigation cases included the conclusion by the UN Human Rights Committee that a country’s climate inaction and policy violated international human rights law in the case of the Torres Strait Islanders versus the Australian government; the Brazilian Supreme Court finding that the Paris Agreement is a treaty of human rights; and oil and gas corporation Shell being ordered to comply with the Paris Agreement and to reduce its carbon emissions by 45 percent as compared to 2019 levels by 2030, which was the first instance of a duty of a private company being found by a court under the Paris Agreement.
As of 2022, there had been 2,180 climate change cases, more than twice as many as when the number was first assessed in 2017. Most of the cases have been brought in the U.S., but they are happening all over the world, with climate litigation in developing countries, including Small Island Developing States, accounting for about 17 percent of reported cases.
According to the Global trends in climate change litigation: 2023 snapshot from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), there have been 2,341 climate change cases captured in the Sabin Center’s databases, with 190 of those filed in the past 12 months.
The LSE snapshot said that climate change cases have been identified in Finland, Russia, Romania, Turkey, China, Thailand and Bulgaria.
“More than 50% of climate cases have direct judicial outcomes that can be understood as favourable to climate action. Climate cases continue to have significant indirect impacts on climate change decision-making beyond the courtroom, too,” the LSE report said. “Domestic legal protections (e.g. for the right to a healthy environment) along with domestic climate legislation, play a critical role in cases against governments.”
The UN report said that cases were brought in 65 international, national, regional, quasi-judicial, tribunal and other adjudicatory bodies across the globe.
“There is a distressingly growing gap between the level of greenhouse gas reductions the world needs to achieve in order to meet its temperature targets, and the actions that governments are actually taking to lower emissions. This inevitably will lead more people to resort to the courts,” said Michael Gerrard, Sabin Center’s faculty director, in the press release.
The report shows that vulnerable groups are having their voices heard on climate crisis issues, including 34 cases brought by or on the behalf of youth and children under 25 years old, as well as a case in Switzerland surrounding how climate change disproportionately impacts senior women.
“More cases are being filed against corporate actors, with a more complex range of legal arguments. Around 20 cases filed by U.S. cities and states against the Carbon Majors are now likely to go to trial,” according to the LSE report. “There has been growth in ‘climate-washing’ cases challenging the accuracy of green claims and commitments. Some cases seeking financial damages are also challenging disinformation, with many relying on consumer protection law. Challenges to the climate policy response of governments and companies have grown significantly in number outside the U.S.”
The UN report said most climate change cases fall under one or more of half a dozen categories, including human rights cases; challenges to non-enforcement of laws and policies related to climate domestically; cases regarding keeping fossil fuels sequestered in the ground; greenwashing and the need for greater climate disclosures; corporate responsibility and liability for climate-related harms; and suits that address failures to adapt to climate change impacts.
The report foresees an increasing number of cases brought by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, more climate migration cases and those related to extreme weather liability, as well as more lawsuits brought by groups that are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis.
The report also anticipates roadblocks in the application of climate attribution science and an increase in “backlash” cases aimed at dismantling climate action regulations.
“This report will be an invaluable resource for everyone who wants to achieve the best possible outcome in judicial forums, and to understand what is and is not possible there,” Gerrard said in the press release.