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Citizens Taking Action Against Governments to Halt Climate Change

Back in 2013, the Dutch Urgenda Foundation and 900 Dutch citizen co-plaintiffs took legal action against the Dutch government claiming liability for the government’s failure to take action against climate change. District court arguments were heard in The Hague last month and a decision is expected in late June.

The climate case is the first European lawsuit seeking to hold a nation accountable for climate change inaction that is endangering citizens. It is also the first global case in which human rights violations (as well as tort law) are at the core of the legal action.

Urgenda is requesting the judges to require the government to reduce carbon emissions to 40% below 1990s levels by 2020. This is based on projected requirements for responsive behaviors set forth in reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The basis for the Dutch case has been formulated in a recently released document called The Oslo Principles on Climate Change. Created by a handful of the world’s leading jurists, legal scholars, and high court judges, these principles lay out obligations of nations to act on climate change. Their purpose is to support and enable judicial decisions on issues of governmental accountability for climate change action.

Jaap Spier, advocate-general to the Dutch Supreme Court and a contributor to the Oslo Principles, stated that courts are in fact capable of forcing nations to take climate action. He believes this may be the only possible solution to eliminate political detachment from climate change.

Here is an provocative TedxFalndersTalk by Roger Cox, author of Revolution Justified. This book is viewed as seminal and a blueprint for the movement to take legal action against governments for climate change action.

Author’s Update:

On June 24th, the district court in The Hague ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating government plans to cut emissions by just 14-17% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 were unlawful in light of Dutch international commitments. The court reasoned that the government must interpret its own law to support and enable it to meet binding international commitments in treaties, accords and the like. Given the scale of the threat posed by climate change, the court has required the Dutch government to revise its emissions reduction target from 14-17% to 25%.

Much of the reasoning applied in the decision would be applicable to the United States under similar laws and binding international commitments, though of course this court ruling does not in any way set a legal precedent under US law. Time will tell whether a similar action will be brought and decided the same way in the United States.