The State of Climate Change Litigation: Can Canada and the U.S. follow Urgenda?

The landmark Urgenda decision in the Netherlands  in June 2015 has ignited and re-ignited activity around the world, around the prospect of using litigation to fight climate change . “Unlawful or Above the Law? ” in the CCPA Monitor (Nov/Dec. 2015) reviews the Urgenda decision in detail, and puts it in the context of Canadian policy and historical legal cases which have challenged Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.   A fuller treatment of the article, titled Canada’s Failure to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions (October 31, 2015) appears on the Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada website . The authors advocate a legal challenge to Canada’s GHG emissions reduction policies. Much of the legal argument is based on the concept of environmental rights as human rights; a Canadian pioneer on this issue is David R. Boyd, whose article “ The Constitutional Right to a Healthy Environment” appeared in Environment Magazine in 2012  . (a fuller treatment appears in his book The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights and the Environment (2012)).   A more recent publication by Ecojustice, The Right to a Healthy Environment: Canada’s Time to Act    (2015) , acknowledges a large debt to Boyd’s work, and the BlueDot movement  of the David Suzuki Foundation works in practical ways towards the goal. In December 2015, Toronto became the 100th municipality in Canada to pass a declaration supporting its residents’ right to a healthy environment . Climate Change: Tackling the Greatest Human Rights Challenge of our Time (Feb. 2015) by the Center for International Environmental Law and CARE considers how to address the issue within the UNFCCC process.

Regarding liability for climate change damages, West Coast Environmental Law in B.C. and the Vanuatu Environmental Law Association released Taking Climate Justice into our own Hands  on December 8, 2015  “which explains the legal basis for climate-impacted countries to set the rules for climate damages lawsuits and how those rules can be enforced against international fossil fuel polluters.” Further, the authors propose language for a Climate Compensation Act, based on common law and thus adaptable to in any country in the world. (Vanuatu released a Statement for Climate Justice in June 2015  ).  A newly-launched blog series by the Alberta Environmental Law Centre promises “to provide updates on climate change law developments and include insights from our related law reform research.”

The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School, New York, publishes compendium of cases in the U.S. and non-U.S. , and maintains a database called Climate Change Laws of the World . In 2015, the Center published Climate Change in the Courts: An Assesment of non-U.S. climate litigation , as well as Climate Change and Human Rights 2015  (in cooperation with UNEP). The introduction states: “The question is no longer whether human rights law has anything to say about climate change, but rather what it says and how it can best be brought to bear. This report is the most detailed and comprehensive study yet undertaken of those questions”.

In a November 2015 blog, “Failure to take climate action is not only morally wrong, it’s illegal” Michael Burger discusses the Urgenda and Ashgar Legari case in Pakistan, and links them to current climate change cases in the United States.   Most high profile of these have been led by Our Children’s Trust, arguing for the right of children to live in a healthy environment. In November in Washington State  , Judge Hollis Hill ruled in favour of youth, stating that “[t]he state has a constitutional obligation to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people.” Other cases are being pursued by Our Children’s Trust in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. In August 2015, Our Children’s Trust filed a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. District Court of Oregon; plaintiffs include 21 young people and climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen, serving as guardian for his granddaughter and for future generations. The complaint document is here; the plaintiffs request a court order requiring the President to implement a national plan to decrease CO2 to a safe level, defined as 350 ppm by the year 2100. In January 2016, a judge granted intervenor status  in the case to the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers ,the American Petroleum Institute, and other energy industry groups. To watch for: March 9, 2016: the first oral arguments will be heard in a Eugene Oregon court.

Internationally, cases claiming damages from climate changes are underway in the Philippines and Peru .  To keep up to date internationally, follow eLaws News by the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) , who have also published Holding Corporations Accountable for Damaging the Climate (2014)   . The Center for International Environmental Law  also focuses on climate liability and climate justice.

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