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Climate Litigation against Companies: An Overview of Legal Arguments

Author: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Published on: 25 June 2019

For the past decade, climate litigation has been steadily rising across jurisdictions. Traditionally, these cases have been brought against governments, but there is now a steep rise in climate lawsuits brought directly against companies. This increase is a result of advancements in climate attribution science, lessons learnt from similar litigation efforts, revelations into companies’ long-standing climate knowledge and deception efforts, increased public mobilisation, and collaboration between cities, lawyers, scientists and activists across the globe.

By early 2018, we tracked 14 climate lawsuits against fossil fuel companies around the world. Our 2018 Corporate Legal Accountability Annual Briefing Turning up the heat: Corporate legal accountability for climate change provides an in-depth analysis of these lawsuits and examines the opportunities and challenges for bringing such litigation. This briefing is intended to provide an overview of the specific legal arguments that lawyers have used to hold corporations accountable for climate harms.

Most of the lawsuits highlighted below are based on tort law claims including nuisance, negligence, civil conspiracy, and other legal doctrines, such as unjust enrichment and strict liability. A few cases also make innovative inroads into consumer protection legislation. However, differences in state laws, particularly in U.S. lawsuits, invite caution in making generalisations about the requirements or merits of particular claims. While all of the claims brought against companies are civil claims, ultimately, what they seek to achieve is the protection of rights and accountability for the abuse of those rights. In that sense, advocates are employing a rights-based approach to environmental litigation against companies.

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Related companies: American Electric Power BP Chevron Edison International ExxonMobil RWE Shell