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Climate Crisis Lawsuits Expanding Worldwide: 'A Global Phenomenon' to Hold Governments and Corporations Accountable

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Youth climate activists attend the Minnesota March for Science held in St. Paul in April 2017. Lorie Shaull / Flickr

By Jessica Corbett

An analysis published Thursday details how lawsuits that aim to push governments to more ambitiously the address the climate emergency and make polluting corporations pay for the damage caused by their sizable contributions to global warming are growing in popularity around the world.


The new report from the Grantham Research Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science — Global Trends in Climate Change Litigation: 2019 Snapshot — focuses on the 1,328 legal actions related to the climate crisis filed between 1990 and May of this year, with cases launched in more than two dozen countries.

The suits have been brought by citizens, non-governmental organizations, businesses and local governments.

Summarizing the study's findings, report co-author Joana Setzer said in a statement that "holding government and businesses to account for failing to combat climate change has become a global phenomenon."

"People and environmental groups are forcing governments and companies into court for failing to act on climate change, and not just in the United States," said Setzer. "Now the number of countries in which people are taking climate change court action is likely to continue to rise."

Though the U.S. accounts for the large majority of the cases — 1,023, according to the report — multiple lawsuits also have been filed in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and the UK. Researchers also noted cases brought to the European Union, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights and the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

Among the key findings from the analysis:

  • Climate change litigation continues to expand across jurisdictions as a tool to strengthen climate action, though more evidence of its impact is needed;
  • Climate change cases have been brought in at least 28 countries around the world, and of the recorded cases more than three quarters have been filed in the U.S.;
  • Most defendants are governments but lawsuits are increasingly targeting the highest greenhouse gas-emitting companies;
  • Climate change-related claims are also being pursued by investors, activist shareholders, cities and states; and
  • Climate change litigation in low- and middle-income countries is growing in quantity and importance.

The report spotlights some high-profile lawsuits, such as Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands, "the first case to argue successfully for the adoption of stricter emissions reduction targets by a government."

Another landmark case that has garnered global attention is Juliana v. United States, which was heard in June before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon. "Youth plaintiffs assert that the government's actions that cause climate change violate their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property," the report explains. "At the time of writing the judges were yet to decide if the case should continue to trial and if the federal government should halt new fossil fuel extraction projects while the court decides the case. The consequences could impact far beyond this suit."

Analyzing the outcomes of litigation within the U.S., researchers found a shift that aligns with when U.S. President Donald Trump took office — and promptly began attempting to roll back his predecessors' climate and environmental policies, which campaigners and scientists sometimes considered inadequate in the long term but still steps in the right direction.

From 1990 to 2016, based on available data from 873 lawsuits, U.S. litigation more often hindered climate policy than favored it, according to the report. However, of the 154 climate lawsuits filed in the first two years of the Trump administration, there were more "favorable" climate cases than "hindering," with a ratio of about 4:1. The report acknowledges that many of the cases from 2017 and 2018 are ongoing.

"Outside the United States, 43 percent of the 305 cases brought between 1994 and May 2019 have led to an outcome that is considered favorable to advancing climate change efforts," the report says, "while 27 percent of cases analyzed have hindered climate change efforts."

The report also highlights the emerging trend of lawsuits from front-line communities seeking money from polluters to cover the costs of adapting to the warming world.

In the past year a spate of public nuisance suits against fossil fuel companies has sought damages potentially amounting to billions of dollars to cover the costs of adaptation (e.g. the cost of infrastructure to protect against sea level rise and other physical impacts of climate change). These lawsuits are also novel in that they were brought by U.S. state governments and municipalities such as the State of Rhode Island, and the cities of New York, San Francisco, and Oakland, rather than citizens or NGOs. The plaintiffs allege that fossil fuel companies continued to produce fossil fuels while knowingly concealing the climate risks.

Though many of the court battles haven't yet been settled, the report seems to serve as a warning to fossil fuel giants. As Setzer put it, "until recently businesses might not have considered a climate change lawsuit to be a risk, but this is something all corporations should now be taking into account."

More broadly, Setzer said that "litigation is clearly an important part of the armory for those seeking to tackle climate change."

"Court cases contribute to greater awareness of climate change issues and can force changes in behavior that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions," she added. "It remains an expensive and potentially risky option, though, if compared to other routes like policy-making."

Setzer hosted a panel discussion on courts and climate justice at a Thursday event held as part of London Climate Action Week. Watch:

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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