Tidal wave of climate litigation: cases and trends examined in new report

On January 26  the United Nations Environment Programme and the Sabin Center at Columbia University published Global Climate Litigation Report: 2020 Status Review , revealing a “growing tidal wave of climate cases” which show “how climate litigation is compelling governments and corporate actors to purse more ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation goals.”

The report states that as of July 1, 2020, at least 1,550 climate change cases have been filed in 38 countries around the world – nearly double the number of cases in the previous report published in 2017, which had documented 884 cases brought in 24 countries. The report summarizes key trends in cases – “ ongoing and increasing numbers of cases relying on fundamental and human rights enshrined in international law and national constitutions to compel climate action; challenging domestic enforcement (and non-enforcement) of climate-related laws and policies; seeking to keep fossil fuels in the ground; claiming corporate liability and responsibility for climate harms; addressing failures to adapt and the impacts of adaptation; and advocating for greater climate disclosures and an end to corporate greenwashing on the subject of climate change and the energy transition.” The report also notes emerging issues in the next five years, including increased attention to attribution studies,  and highlights significant and precedent-setting  cases throughout.

Global Climate Litigation Report: 2020 Status Review is current to July 1, 2020. Since then, at least three more important cases have been decided: 1.  in December 2020, a U.K. coroner ruled that “Air pollution a cause in girl’s death, coroner rules in landmark case” (The Guardian, January 2021); 2. an Appeals court in France overturned an expulsion order against an asthmatic man because he would face “a worsening of his respiratory pathology due to air pollution” in Bangladesh, his home country (the significance described in The Guardian in “Air pollution will lead to mass migration, say experts after landmark ruling” , with more details here). And 3. on January 29, 2021, a Dutch Appeals court brought an end to a case begun in 2008, when it upheld a decision against Royal Dutch Shell petroleum, finding it responsible for multiple oil spills and leaks which poisoned farmland in the Niger Delta. A Reuters report  quotes Friends of the Earth, saying “the ruling exceeded all expectations and marked the first time a multinational had been instructed by a Dutch court to uphold a duty of care for foreign operations.” The case is also summarized in “After 13 years, Justice: Dutch court orders Shell to pay for harm done to Nigerian farmers and in Deutsche Welle in “Dutch Court rules Shell liable for Niger Delta oil spills.

And in the United States, a potentially landmark case of climate liability is underway as of January 2021. According to a summary at NPR the city of Baltimore is presenting its claim for the cost of climate-related damages against more than a dozen major oil and gas companies including BP, ExxonMobil and Shell. According to NPR: “The Supreme Court will announce its decision later this year on the narrow question of whether the Baltimore case should be considered in state or federal court. If the justices decide in favor of the companies and the case proceeds in federal court, it’s possible that the lawsuit will be eventually dismissed without a trial. However, if the justices decide in favor of Baltimore, it is likely that the case will proceed in Maryland state court, which could require the companies in the case to turn over vast troves of documents about their businesses and marketing practices over the decades.” A multitude of legal documents have been compiled since the case began in 2018, and are available at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law here.

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