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22 Sep 2015

Jennifer Gleason, Staff Attorney, ELAW

Time to secure climate justice

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Part of the Climate Dialogues blog series

Chevron reported $4.5 billion in profit for the first quarter of 2014. While corporations continue to pump out more oil and dig up more coal, communities around the world are suffering the consequences of climate change: severe heat waves, storms of greater intensity, sea-level rise, flooding, melting glaciers and bleaching coral. Some people are profiting enormously from selling products that damage the climate, while others bear the costs. Lawyers around the world are galvanising to seek climate justice.

 For 25 years, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) has been collaborating with lawyers around the world who are defending communities. Climate change may be the biggest threat facing our planet today – and these advocates are leading efforts to seek climate justice. Requiring corporations that ignored the risks of greenhouse gas emissions to compensate affected communities and provide them the resources to relocate or otherwise adapt, will start to remedy the injustice. These important legal efforts will force those responsible to internalise the cost of greenhouse gas emissions and change their practices. They will also push governments to strengthen and enforce regulations limiting pollution.

 As global climate negotiations plod on with no firm commitments, courts offer communities facing the greatest harm from climate change the opportunity to stand and achieve meaningful relief. Yet, climate litigation will require applying traditional legal arguments to a new and challenging context. This does not mean that courts are the wrong place for this debate. Indeed, judicial systems are the best places for addressing past and continuing harms. Nevertheless, public interest lawyers committed to seeking climate justice are prepared for a marathon, not a sprint.

As global climate negotiations plod on with no firm commitments, courts offer communities facing the greatest harm from climate change the opportunity to stand and achieve meaningful relief.

 ELAW is working with its global network of advocates to evaluate the best prospects for successful climate litigation. At the end of 2014, ELAW published a report summarising the first phase of this research: Holding Corporations Accountable for Damaging the Climate (available in English and Spanish). We found that courts and legal systems in many countries are well situated to address climate impacts. Civil law jurisdictions are more likely to have a particular statute under which citizens could file a case seeking compensation for climate damages. Courts in common law countries have shown willingness to adapt existing legal doctrine to resolve novel disputes. We are encouraged by these conclusions, but finding a court in which to pursue climate litigation is just one piece of the puzzle in holding those responsible for climate change liable.

 The Climate Accountability Institute (CAI) is working on another important piece of the climate justice puzzle. In 2011, CAI’s Richard Heede published a peer-reviewed report in the journal Climactic Change attributing a significant portion of global carbon emissions from 1854-2010 to individual companies that produced the oil, gas, coal and cement that lead to those emissions. CAI traced a remarkable 63% of historic anthropogenic emissions to just 90 fossil fuel and cement producers.

 Identifying the damage resulting from climate change will make it easier to pursue justice.

Scientists around the world are generating critical information on the impacts of climate change. In particular, scientists working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Oxford University, and the Union of Concerned Scientists are highlighting the consequences of climate change and helping the public understand why urgent and effective action is needed. Identifying the damage resulting from climate change will make it easier to pursue justice.

 Investigators are uncovering documents demonstrating the steps that fossil fuel companies and industry trade associations have taken to deceive and mislead the public and lawmakers to ensure they can continue profiting from the sale and manufacturing of fossil fuels. The Union of Concerned Scientists published The Climate Deception Dossiers, which shines a light on these deceptive practices. For example, the report describes a particularly brazen attempt to mislead U.S. lawmakers:

 In 2009, before a vote in Congress on a key climate bill, a front group of the fossil fuel industry, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, hired a public relations firm that sent members of Congress forged letters purporting to be from 13 nonprofit groups including the NAACP, misrepresenting their positions on the proposed legislation.[1]

 With powerful science and evidence of corporate deception in hand, ELAW and lawyers around the world are inspired to take up the cause on behalf of the vulnerable communities bearing the greatest burden of climate change. If politicians and producers of fossil fuels continue to ignore the grave injustices of climate change, our courts will not.


[1] The Climate Deception Dossiers, Union of Concerned Scientists (July 2015), p. 17.