5 Legal Tactics Environmentalists Are Using to Fight Climate Change
By Martin Kuebler
More than 700 climate lawsuits have been filed around the world since 2015, according to the Climate Change Litigation Databases. That's a huge increase, considering there have only been about 1,700 of these types of cases since the late 1980s, most of them in the U.S.
In a recent long-running case, the Dutch Supreme Court — citing the European Convention on Human Rights — ruled in favor of environmental group the Urgenda Foundation and 900 citizens and ordered the Dutch government to reduce its greenhouse emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020. A few months later, the government announced €3 billion ($3.5 billion) in measures to drastically cut coal use and fund renewable energy projects.
Urgenda director Marjan Minnesma called it "an enormous win," telling The Guardian that the move would show "it is possible to use the law as a strategic instrument for change."
Here's an overview of this tactic, and others, that environmentalists are using to force climate action.
1. Defending Human Rights
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet believes the Urgenda case will set a precedent. "This landmark ruling provides a clear path forward for concerned individuals in Europe — and around the world — to undertake climate litigation in order to protect human rights," she said after the decision. The International Bar Association even released a model statute for such cases challenging government failure to act on climate change in early 2020.
Citizen groups have filed similar human rights cases in several EU countries over the past five years, including in France, Belgium and Ireland — the latter decided in the activists' favor in July 2020.
In February 2020, a group of nine young Germans led by Fridays for Future activist Luisa Neubauer filed a human rights challenge to Germany's Federal Climate Protection Act (KSG). They're arguing that these targets — which aim to reduce emissions by 55% over the next decade — don't go far enough.
And in September 2020, six young Portuguese activists between the ages of 8 and 21 launched an unprecedented climate case at the European Court of Human Rights against the 27 EU member states, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine. Backed by the Global Legal Action Network, their aim is to force the nations to respect the 2015 Paris climate agreement and cut their emissions at home and abroad, where their multinational companies operate.
With many of the cases still ongoing, it's too soon for activists to know whether their strategy will prove successful in the long run. But they say wins in Ireland and the Netherlands have given them hope.
2. Standing up for Indigenous Rights
Another strategy focuses on the violation of Indigenous rights and racial discrimination, arguing that climate change exacerbates these contentious issues.
In November 2020, a group of political parties backed by NGOs filed a complaint against the Brazilian government for alleged failures to curb deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, a major contributor to climate change. They argue that government inaction has "violated the fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples" present and future. The case was in part inspired by a 2018 ruling by Colombia's highest court, which found that the Colombian rainforest was entitled to "protection, conservation, maintenance and restoration."
Earlier in 2020, representatives of the Wet'suwet'en Indigenous group in British Columbia filed a legal challenge against the Canadian government for failing to meet its commitments under several climate accords since the late 1980s.
"None of Canada's international commitments […] even if met, would have or will enable it to make its equitable contribution to reducing global warming to non-catastrophic levels," they said, arguing that this failure had breached their constitutional and human rights.
Legal challenges by Indigenous groups have met with less success over the years, especially in North America. But as the effects of climate change become more apparent, that could change.
3. Holding Major Polluters to Account
Activists and municipalities, especially in the U.S., are increasingly targeting major oil and gas companies directly, aiming in some cases to use awarded fines to fund climate mitigation plans.
In early 2018, New York City took five of the world's largest oil companies — BP, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC — to court for billions of dollars in compensation for the effects of climate change. Referencing devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city was seeking damages to fund climate-resilient infrastructure and heat mitigation measures.
"The city is standing up and saying we will take our own action to protect our people," he told reporters. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit later that year, though the city has launched an appeal.
Local cases like these have also gone international. In 2015, Peruvian farmer Saul Luciano Lliuya filed a claim against German electricity producer RWE, alleging it had "willingly and knowingly" contributed to climate change and was responsible for increased flooding caused by glacial melt near his mountain home. He has asked the court to order RWE to reimburse him for 0.47% of the costs he is expected to incur for flood protection — RWE's estimated share in global total emissions from 1751 to 2010.
"Fossil fuel companies, like tobacco companies before them, have allowed governments to pay for the harms caused by their products," Korey Silverman-Roati, a climate law fellow at the Sabin Center, told Bloomberg in a recent interview. "As climate harms and costs continue to rise, more jurisdictions are likely to attempt to recoup their costs in court, and the pressure on courts to apportion those costs in a just way will only grow."
4. Protecting Livelihoods
Chevron, Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies are tied up in another climate case on the U.S. West Coast, where a fishing industry trade group took them to court in late 2018 for damaging their "productive livelihood and way of life."
The fishers allege the oil giants have contributed to increased ocean temperatures which have led to prolonged closures of the Dungeness crab fisheries, "the most lucrative and reliable fisheries on the West Coast."
Also in 2018, a group of families from across the EU, Kenya and Fiji filed a lawsuit against the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union for failing to protect citizens from the impacts of climate change and the threat to their livelihood.
Among the plaintiffs are lavender farmers from France, beekeepers in Portugal, an Italian family who works in the Alpine winter tourism industry and a group of Indigenous Sami youth from Sweden, who fear their reindeer herding culture is at risk. The group claims the EU's existing climate targets don't protect fundamental "rights to life, health, occupation and property."
The goal of court cases like this isn't always to win — in fact, the plaintiffs in the EU case aren't seeking compensation. Stefan Küper, press spokesperson for the NGO Germanwatch, told DW that such cases "draw attention to the issue and show other people suffering from the negative impacts of climate change that they are not alone."
5. Influencing Climate Investments
But financial incentives are still a proven path to success, as seen most recently in a landmark case in Australia where a $41 billion pension fund was sued by a fund member for investing in fossil fuels, an increasingly risky venture. The case was settled in early November 2020, with the pension fund pledging to achieve a "net zero carbon footprint for the fund by 2050."
Analysts expect the case to spur similar litigation around the world. "If investors are legally required to apply a climate risk lens to their portfolios, this could, for example, result in a significant reduction in investments in fossil fuels, many of which are already being viewed as stranded assets in a low-carbon future," said David Barnden, of the law firm that argued the case.
Reposted with permission from DW.
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As the world celebrated Earth Day, Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio and Corporation Counsel James E. Johnson on Thursday announced that New York City filed suit over Big Oil's decades of lies about fossil fuels and the climate emergency — just the latest addition to more than two dozen similar cases launched by U.S. communities.
Like many of the other cases throughout the country, this lawsuit, filed in the Supreme Court of the State of New York in the County of New York, names fossil fuel giants BP, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell as well as the American Petroleum Institute (API), an industry trade group, as defendants.
A statement announcing the suit accuses the defendants of "systematically and intentionally deceiving New Yorkers" in violation of the city's Consumer Protection Law. The complaint says they engaged in "deceptive trade practices" including "false and misleading greenwashing campaigns."
“My message to Big Oil is: New York City will see you in court.” NYC sued 3 major oil companies for allegedly runn… https://t.co/P3lIx6GMJ7— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Bloomberg Quicktake)1619116109.0
"Climate change is very much on the mind of New Yorkers. Overwhelmed with the idea that there is nothing they can do, consumers are looking for ways to help, including by spending money on fossil fuel alternatives and rewarding companies that seem green," Johnson explained.
"The defendants in our lawsuit have spent millions to persuade consumers that they present a clean, green choice. But they don't," he continued. "They say they are making meaningful investments to protect the environment. But they aren't. They would like us to believe they are good faith partners in the drive to reduce fossil fuel consumption. And we don't."
Asserting that "consumers are entitled to clear, accurate information about products they may choose," Johnson added that "we are bringing this litigation to protect that right. The defendants' deceptive practices are squarely prohibited by New York City law and cannot be allowed to continue."
Other key city officials joined in calling out the oil and gas majors, including Lorelei Salas of the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, Dave A. Chokshi of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Ben Furnas of the Mayor's Office of Climate and Sustainability, and Jainey Bavishi of the Mayor's Office of Climate Resiliency.
"Fossil fuel companies are continuing to spin a tangled web of lies about the deadly products they produce and sell after decades of misleading consumers," said Bavishi. "There's undeniable scientific evidence that oil, gas, and coal are warming our planet and making climate disasters more frequent and more severe. We won't be able to protect New York City from climate change unless we stop these companies from lying to New Yorkers — and that's what we intend to do."
NYC sues ExxonMobil et al. for "systemically & intentionally deceiving New Yorkers". Should be a slam dunk: In 201… https://t.co/W45dNQs9Dr— Geoffrey Supran (@Geoffrey Supran)1619118058.0
The mayor, who has gained some international attention for his work to address the climate emergency, reiterated a point he has often made — that "our children deserve to live in a world free from climate change, and we must do everything in our power to give them hope and stop climate change in its tracks."
"That means taking on some of the biggest polluting corporations for false advertising and greenwashing," de Blasio added, describing the behavior as illegal. "My Earth Day message to Big Oil: See you in court."
Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI), welcomed the filing in a statement.
"Oil and gas executives caused the climate crisis, then systematically lied about it. They need to be held accountable," he said. "Exxon, Shell, BP, and API have spent decades targeting policymakers and the public with climate disinformation. It's time for policymakers everywhere to realize that oil and gas executives will never be good faith partners in climate solutions."
The new lawsuit comes after a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of an earlier New York City nuisance suit that aimed to hold some of the same companies accountable for the cost of climate damages they knowingly caused. That ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court contrasts with other recent federal court decisions.
Responding to NYC's latest move, API, ExxonMobil, and Shell all highlighted the dismissal, while a representative for BP declined to comment, according to CNN.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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This Earth Month, Starbucks is experimenting with a circular economy.
From March 30 to May 31st, customers at five Seattle Starbucks will be able to order their drink in a reusable cup that they can then deposit themselves at a contactless kiosk or have picked up for them by area recycling service Ridwell.
"Promoting reusability is an important part of Starbucks goal to reduce waste by 50% by 2030," Starbucks Chief Sustainability Officer Michael Kobori said in the program announcement. "We understand the interdependency of human and planetary health, and we believe it is our responsibility to reduce single-use cup waste. We will lead the transition to a circular economy."
Borrow A Cup
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
The Borrow A Cup pilot works like this.
Step 1: Customers will order their drink in a reusable cup and pay a refundable $1 deposit.
Step 2: When they are done, customers will return the cups to a contactless kiosk in the store's lobby or drive-thru. They can then scan the Starbucks App for a $1 credit and 10 Bonus Stars.
Step 3: The cups will be collected and professionally cleaned by GO Box and returned to circulation within 48 hours.
Starbucks said each reusable cup would prevent as many as 30 disposable cups from being wasted.
The new pilot is not the first time the company has experimented with ways to reuse cups, a Starbucks spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email. The company has offered a discount for customers bringing their own containers since the 1980s and has long sold its own reusable thermoses and mugs at its stores. However, the idea of offering cups that can be returned to the store later is rather new. In 2019, it launched a month-long reusable cup trial at London's Gatwick airport and another test in the Bay Area. To prepare for the current trial, it ran single-store tests in the Seattle area during the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021.
"Those tests were intended to explore operations and logistics for our partners, and used our standard reusable traveler cup, usually available at the cash register," Starbucks explained. "This pilot will explore the scalability of the concept and equipment."
Starbucks did not say exactly how, when, or where the project would be expanded if it succeeds.
"We are optimistic about this program and we look forward to customer feedback as we explore scalable options to reduce single-use cup waste," the company spokesperson said.
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
One unique feature of the Seattle pilot is the partnership with Ridwell. Ridwell is an innovative Seattle-area company that grew out of a father and his six-year-old son's search for a place to safely dispose of batteries, according to the company website. Once they found their answer, they offered to take their neighbor's batteries, too.
The company's mission ignited from this initial spark. Ridwell picks up hard to reuse or recycle items from Seattle homes and finds a way to keep them out of landfills. This made partnering with Starbucks a natural fit. During the trial, the company will pick up the reusable cups from customers' homes.
"Our mission is to make it easy to waste less – just as easy (and hopefully more delightful!) than throwing things away. Offering our members the ability to return their reusable Starbucks cups without leaving their homes or needing to remember to bring them back to the store is a fantastic example of simplifying potential friction in reuse and circular programs at scale," a Ridwell spokesperson told EcoWatch in an email.
Ridwell said it would like to engage in more partnerships like this if the Starbucks trial succeeds.
"We are excited about expanding partnerships that enable a more earth-friendly way for our members to consume the things they enjoy (like a coffee!)," the spokesperson said.
A Tale of Two Markets
Lauren Pinney / Edelman / Starbucks
Environmental campaigners said that the Starbucks pilot is a step in the right direction.
"Greenpeace supports the model that Starbucks is exploring, through which customers essentially rent a reusable container for a deposit that is returned to them when they bring the container back," Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar told EcoWatch in an email. "That container is then washed and cleaned and reused many times, as with other dishes in restaurants we frequent. Not only can this model help our environment and health, it can create new jobs and save businesses money in the long run."
However, Greenpeace argued that Starbucks could be moving faster with implementing this model across the U.S., something that seems to be supported by Starbucks' actions abroad.
The day before Starbucks announced the Seattle pilot, it also said that it would phase out all single-use cups from its South Korea stores by 2025. This will begin with a launch of reusable cups in certain stores in the city of Jeju this summer that will then expand to additional locations over the next four years.
"If Starbucks can eliminate all single-use cups in South Korea by 2025 and shift entirely to reuse, it can do more than implement a trial program here with a goal of reducing waste by 50% by 2030," Hocevar said. "Starbucks' goal should be to eliminate all of its disposable coffee cups as quickly as possible and scale up these reusable programs across all of its markets."
Starbucks, for its part, said that local conditions determined how quickly it could roll out new ideas in different places.
"In some cases, market level conditions allow us to move quickly than others, which in turn allows us to share those learnings in other markets," the company said.
But Greenpeace noted there is another key difference between the U.S. and South Korea. The latter passed a law in 2018 banning disposable cups at sit-down restaurants, and the Environment Minister further revised rules in February to cut down on plastic and other disposable items.
"It definitely appears as though South Korea's recent actions against single-use plastics, particularly for dine-in options, has influenced Starbucks to act with greater urgency there," Hocevar told EcoWatch. "This is part of the reason we need to pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act [in the U.S.] and develop a global plastics treaty to move toward reuse urgently."
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As California enters its second consecutive dry year and braces for what could be another devastating wildfire season, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency on Wednesday, in just two counties. The declaration targets Mendocino and Sonoma counties, known for their wineries and grape growing, and where conditions are desperately dry.
Standing in the dry bottom of Lake Mendocino, Newsom said, "Oftentimes we overstate the word historic, but this is indeed an historic moment, certainly historic for this particular lake, Mendocino," according to AP News. The lake is at about 40 percent of its normal capacity. Lake Sonoma, another local reservoir, is only about 62 percent full.
Here in Lake Mendocino, we should be 40 ft. underwater but it’s dry. This is climate change. Today, we declared a… https://t.co/ISsasLAihB— Office of the Governor of California (@Office of the Governor of California)1619034124.0
According to the California Department of Water Resources, this is the state's fourth-driest year on record, especially in the northern parts of the state. At the beginning of the month, state officials announced that snow accumulation in the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Cascades was about 40 percent below average levels, The Guardian reported.
Newsom's declaration has already faced criticism from state officials and farmers in the Central Valley, who say the governor's approach isn't sufficient to address the drought that impacts almost all parts of the state.
"(T)he Central Valley can't afford to be overlooked," state Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R-Fresno) said in a statement, according to The Mercury News. "We need a statewide emergency declaration immediately in order to deliver more water to farmers and growers in the Valley."
To others, the governor's regional approach "sounds like a good idea," Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, told The Mercury News, who added that the governor should not declare a widespread drought too early, to avoid "crying wolf."
Currently, California is in a similar situation to what it experienced six years ago when former Gov. Jerry Brown declared a water emergency. But state officials say today's current drought will be unlike anything seen before, requiring innovative measures, according to CalMatters.
Although the governor has yet to declare a state-wide emergency, officials have been warning Californians of the drought. In March, the California's State Water Resources Control Board, for example, "sent early warnings to 40,000 water rights holders urging them to start conserving," AP News reported.
"If you're in a different part of the state, you probably need to know that this will one day happen to you," Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said of the drought declaration, according to AP News.
In early April, a group of state legislators sent a letter to Newsom urging him to declare a drought emergency, CalMatters reported. "This is the slowest, most foreseeable train wreck imaginable," said Sen. Borgeas, who helped write the letter.
Newsom's reluctance to declare a state-wide emergency may have something to do with his looming recall campaign, set for later this year, according to political strategist Dan Schnur, The Mercury News reported.
"It's hard to think of another explanation about why he'd be tiptoeing around such a critically important issue," Schnur told The Mercury News. "He's clearly very sensitive about pushing voters too hard on water usage in the aftermath of the pandemic restrictions."
Regardless of whether the declaration covers their county, some local water districts are already taking matters into their own hands. In Marin County, for example, adjacent to Sonoma, water officials voted Tuesday to require residents to reduce water use by measures such as not washing vehicles at home or filling backyard pools, AP News reported.
As the state continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and a sluggish economy, scarce resources and the threat of another wildfire season will only ignite further tensions. Acknowledging that water is a "politically fractious issue" in the state, Gov. Newsom urged people not to resort to "old binaries" like urban vs. rural, The Mercury News reported.
"This is California," he said. "We are Californians."
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Much of the conversation surrounding the ecological benefits of tropical rainforests focuses on South America's Amazon. However, the forests of Central Africa are just as important. While the Amazon is the largest contiguous rainforest in the world, Central Africa's rainforests are the world's second largest, Nature reported. They store more carbon per hectare than the Amazon and host a higher concentration of large trees than any other continent.
They are also under threat. A new study published in Nature on Wednesday maps the different forest types present in Central Africa and pinpoints which are most vulnerable to the climate crisis and human activity.
"Africa is forecasted to experience large and rapid climate change and population growth during the twenty-first century, which threatens the world's second largest rainforest," the study authors wrote. "Protecting and sustainably managing these African forests requires an increased understanding of their compositional heterogeneity, the environmental drivers of forest composition and their vulnerability to ongoing changes."
To accomplish this goal, a France-based research team examined data concerning six million trees from more than 180,000 field plots in Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, AFP reported.
The team mapped the forests based on where different plants thrived.
"The forest area of Central Africa is far from being a homogeneous green carpet. It is home to a wide variety of forests with different characteristics, including their own particular carbon storage capacity," Maxime Réjou-Méchain, study lead author and French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) ecologist, said in an IRD press release. "This diversity can be explained by the different types of climate (humidity, temperature, evapotranspiration rate, amount of rainfall) and soils, as well as by the history of the African flora and the degree of human activity that has disturbed the forests for thousands of years, such as shifting agriculture."
The researchers identified 10 types of forest, according to Nature. These include Atlantic coastal evergreens in Gabon and semi-deciduous forests at the northern edge of the Central African study area. The researchers then compared their map with projections for how the region's climate is likely to change by 2085.
Because the various forest types have evolved over time to thrive in different climate niches, the rise in global temperatures might mean that some trees will be less able to adapt to a changing climate.
"[T]he forest margins in the north and south of the region, the Atlantic forests and most of those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to more than half of Central Africa's forests, are among the most vulnerable," Professor Bonaventure Sonké, study coauthor and University of Yaoundé 1 botanist, told IRD.
However, the research also presents a guide to conserving the particular biodiversity of these forests.
"These results must now be used and applied to develop land use plans that preserve forest characteristics while maintaining connections between protected zones through sustainably managed timber production forests," Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury, study coauthor and CIRAD forest ecologist, said in the press release.
While human activity threatens the forests, they are also key resources for the people who live in and near them.
"[R]ainforests in Central Africa and the ecosystem services they provide are intertwined with people's livelihoods and food security," Marion Pfeifer from Newcastle University's School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and Deo Shirima from Tanzania's Sokoine University of Agriculture wrote in Nature. "Developing sustainable management plans that recognize the diversity of the ways in which people interact with and depend on these forests will be a huge challenge. It will require concerted cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral efforts that move beyond national boundaries."
The Race to Save the World is releasing on Virtual Cinema this Earth Day. Instead of focusing on paralyzing facts and numbers this inspiring feature takes a unique approach by following passionate activists, ages 15-72, who are in the trenches fighting for a livable future. These brave climate warriors put their lives on the line to push for change, regardless of the personal cost.
Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Gantz brings an urgent and intimate portrait of the protests, arrests, courtroom drama and family turmoil these activists endure as they single-mindedly focus their attention on the goal of creating a more sustainable world for future generations. "The Race To Save The World" is an inspiring and energizing call-to-action to quit waiting on the sidelines and make our voices heard.
Watch the exclusive Earth Day preview above.
For more on "The Race to Save the World" read Olivia Rosane's article "3 New Films to Watch This Earth Week."
Where to Entire Film Watch: Virtual Cinema