While Europeans suffer from heat waves, a wave of climate litigation heats up the debate

While Europe is experiencing another record hot summer, climate litigation is moving forward in the EU and US. The European General Court has just accepted the first EU wide climate change case, presented by plaintiffs as the People’s Climate Case and was published in the European Union Official Journal today. This is an important initial step in the proceeding which is part of a wave of climate litigation composed of similar suits made against the governments of the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Colombia, Ireland, the UK, Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand, and the US.

Last year’s results in climate diplomacy drew up a sober scenario. It is widely acknowledged that current Nationally Determined Contributions are insufficient; and while the Talanoa dialogue creates an opportunity to enhance ambition, it hasn’t resulted in a dramatic change yet. The EU’s targets are acknowledged to not be in line with the long-term objectives of the Paris agreement, and the Commission has already suggested that they should be tightened[1]. Meanwhile, climate researchers fear a tipping point as global warming approaches the two degrees boundary, which dramatically increases the danger that one of the elements in the Earth system might "tip over". This could mean up to five degrees of warming and a 60 meter sea level rise. If this is the case, the effects will be severe in 2050, when my cohort will be in their late fifties. My generation will be the first to witness the catastrophic consequences of climate change, but what will the world look like for generations to come?

At a time where it seems impossible to close the accountability deficit known as the tragedy of commons, climate litigation appears as a new weapon for environmentalists to close this accountability gap. Citizens are turning to courts in an attempt to hold governments and corporations to account for the environmental damage they cause.

Globally, there are hundreds of cases in the pipeline, and 2018 might be the year of the big wins as several landmark climate change lawsuits with significant decisions are pending.

Several high-profile climate lawsuits to watch in the summer of 2018 

In May 2018 families from the EU, Kenya, Fiji and the Swedish Saami Youth Association Sáminuorra sued the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. The lawsuit challenges the emissions targets set out in the 2030 climate and energy framework, which aims at a 40 percent overall reduction compared to 1990 levels. Claimants argue that the acts violate their fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. They challenge the EU to enact a reduction target of at least 50–60 percent from 1990 levels. The European General Court has just accepted the case which is an important first step in the right direction. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union are expected to respond formally in two months.

The voices speaking up for inter-generational justice are becoming louder. In the United States, a group of young Americans in Oregon filed a lawsuit in 2015 which claims that the government's refusal to address climate mitigation threatens the constitutional rights of future generations to 'life, liberty, and property' as enshrined in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment." Similarly, In the Netherlands legal precedent was set when Urgenda and 900 citizens successfully sued for stronger Dutch climate ambition in 2015. According to Urgenda, the State was acting unlawfully as it failed ‘to prevent the Netherlands from causing (more than proportionate) damage, from its territory, to current and future generations in the Netherlands and abroad.’

It is early to judge whether or not claimants will succeed in demanding stronger action from their governments.  While victories have so far been rare, the pressure for change is growing. Wins will become more likely in the future, as public opinion – and the attitudes of judges – shift with the times. Nonetheless, these cases have the merit to give future generations a voice, which is much needed.

To date, there are no institutions or processes that protect the interest of future generations in Europe (see IEEP's paper for the World Future Council). Young people (age 18-24) vote less than their peers and many of today’s top decision-makers will no long be there in 2050. As a young person, I hope that the interest of future generations will soon be institutionalised, for example through an EU guardian for the interest of future generations.

[1] See Miguel Arias Cañete speech at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-18-4236_en.htm