Urgenda decision upheld: victory for citizens’ climate rights comes just ahead of Juliana v. United States

urgenda-logoOn October 9, the Hague Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling in the landmark case of  Urgenda Foundation v. The State of Netherlands , which in  2015 was the first case in the world to rule that governments have a “duty of care” to protect their citizens against climate change. The 2015 ruling ordered the Dutch government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 (compared to 1990 levels).  The Urgenda Foundation press release is here ; a compilation of documents by the Foundation, including the text of the decisions, is here  and an English-language Explainer is here.  The article in Climate Liability News expands on the global importance of this decision, which has inspired other court challenges in U.S., NorwayPakistanIreland,  Belgium, Colombia, Switzerland and New Zealand.

see you in court tshirtThe Urgenda decision comes just as the highly- publicized Juliana v. United States case proceeds to its next court appearance on October 29.  Juliana vs. the United States was originally filed in Oregon in 2015 under the Obama administration, and argues that the 21 young plaintiffs have constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, which are currently jeopardized by federal climate change policies.   It is led by Our Children’s Trust and has been called “the trial of the century” and has received media attention throughout the ongoing challenges from the federal government.

B.C. Municipalities urged to take fossil fuel giants to court

In January,  West Coast Environmental Law and over 50 other environmental, health, human rights, women’s rights, and faith-based organizations sent an Open Letter  to local municipalities in British Columbia, urging them  1.) to write to fossil fuel companies, demanding accountability for the climate change costs being borne by citizens , and 2.) To consider participating in a class action lawsuit against the big polluters.  As part of their new  initiative, called   Climate Law in Our Own Hands  , West Coast Environmental Law is offering legal research and support to interested local governments, as well as template letters and fossil fuel company addresses to facilitate the  letter-writing campaign.  WCEL argues that fossil fuel companies will only start working towards climate change solutions when they are held to account to pay their fair share for the damage being caused.   According to one of the Open Letter signatories, Sierra Club B.C. , “The Province of BC has estimated that Metro Vancouver Municipalities will need to spend $9.5 billion between now and 2100 to address rising sea-levels (about $100 million per year on average).”  The list could continue to add wildfires, the destruction of forests by the mountain pine beetle, drought, and extreme weather.

WCEL  is not new to this issue, but rather have been active since the 2015 landmark Urgenda case in the Netherlands , when they released their report  Taking climate justice into our own hands  , which included a draft Climate Compensation Act .  The new website,  Climate Law in Our Own Hands maintains a blog about legal actions around the world, including a November 2016  report about  420 “grannies”  in Switzerland who are working with  Greenpeace Switzerland to launch a legal challenge  against the Swiss government for inadequately addressing threats to their health and future generations from climate change.  Other high profile court cases underway include the challenge to stop Arctic drilling  by  Norweigian youth and Greenpeace in Norway ,  and the ongoing cases led by  Our Children’s Trust   against the U.S. federal and state  governments.  The federal case,  Juliana v.United States  first launched in 2015,  and most recently (November 10, 2016) has been permitted to proceed to trail, after Judge Ann Aiken issued an opinion and order denying the U.S. government and fossil fuel industry’s motions to dismiss .  The 21 plaintiffs, mostly teenagers, are suing for the constitutional right of future generations  to live in  a healthy and safe environment.

Non-violent climate insurgency: people using the power of the law to protect the planet

Despite the hooplah of Paris and Marakkesh,  a new article by Jeremy Brecher argues that climate protection will never be accomplished by existing government and institutional actors.  “Climate Emergency: Global Insurgency: There is no choice but to escalate today’s campaigns against global fossil fuel infrastructure”  appeared in Common Dreams  on October 14  , and while the author commends the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, (mirrored in Canada by protests against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline) he quotes Bill McKibben that “Fighting one pipeline at a time, the industry will eventually prevail.” Brecher advocates instead what he calls a “global nonviolent constitutional insurgency”.  “A non-violent insurgency, like an armed insurgency, refuses to accept the limits on its action imposed by the powers that be. Unlike an armed insurgency, it eschews violence and instead expresses power by mobilizing people for mass nonviolent direct action….It is not formally a revolutionary movement because it does not challenge the legitimacy of the fundamental law; rather, it asserts that current officials are in violation of the very laws that they themselves claim provide the justification for their authority. Although the established courts may condemn and punish them, constitutional insurgents view their “civil disobedience” as actually obedience to law, even a form of law enforcement.”

Recalling the great civil disobedience campaigns of Gandhi, the American civil rights movement, and Polish Solidarity movement , Brecher points to the current “Break Free From Fossil Fuels” global campaign, begun after the Paris Agreement in 2015, as an encouraging start to the climate insurgency he advocates.   The U.S. organizers of Break Free From Fossil Fuels issued a “Public Trust Proclamation”   which summarizes the principles.  The legal actions inspired by the Urgenda case and  Our Children’s Trust in the U.S. share many of the same values, but apply them in the courts.  Brecher links these two movements in an earlier article, “A new wave of climate insurgents defines itself as law-enforcers“.   Brecher’s 2014 book,   Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival    has been updated and reissued as a free ebook , to make it as widely available as possible to those who want to understand and help halt climate change.

Note:  In Canada, the May 2016 Break Free protests were focused on the Kinder Morgan pipeline (photos still available here ).  Protests are continuing – including sit-ins in the offices of government ministers in November, as even the federal government’s Ministerial Panel Report , released on November 3, raises questions about how the pipeline fits with the government’s commitments on climate change, First Nations reconciliation, and social license for fossil fuel projects. According to Environmental Defence, rejecting Kinder Morgan and restarting the review process after reforming the National Energy Board is the only viable option for the federal government.  The government’s decision is due December 19, and is seen as a defining moment for the Trudeau government to demonstrate a clear commitment to its climate goals, rather than a compromise with energy/economics.

The Youth of Norway are suing for their constitutional climate rights

The government of Norway and thirteen oil companies are being sued  by Greenpeace International and a Norwegian youth alliance called Nature and Youth, who are challenging the government’s decision to allow oil exploration in the Barents Sea.  The suit argues that further oil exploration violates  threatens Norway’s commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement and violates the constitutional right to a healthy and safe environment for future generations.  Two  Greenpeace blogs emphasize that this is meant to be an historic case, protecting the final frontier of the Arctic, and also exercising the  people-power of a new generation stepping up to hold governments accountable to their climate promises. Read “This is the People vs. Arctic Oil”  and  “Why we are taking Arctic Oil to Court” , which appeals to the global community for support.  (Note: the Greenpeace Canada also maintains an Arctic campaign  but the website doesn’t reflect the Norwegian case yet).   An article in Common Dreams,    “Norwegian Youth Taking Government to Court Over ‘Unconstitutional’ Arctic Drilling”   explains the case fully and makes the links with the U.S. case brought by James Hansen and  Our Children’s Trust  .  The groundbreaking federal lawsuit by Our Children’s Trust, having been challenged repeatedly by the fossil fuel industry,  is under review by a U.S. District Court Judge, who heard oral arguments on September 13 . A decision is expected by  mid-November, at which time the case will head to trial, or go to appeal.  Our Children’s Trust is the subject of an October article in Fusion: “Generational Injustice:  Inside the Legal Movement  suing for Climate Justice Now”   .

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.