In a growing number of climate-related legal actions, concerned citizens are targeting the Carbon Majors, the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations responsible for two thirds of the human-made carbon emissions in the atmosphere today.
These corporations have made massive profits while outsourcing the true cost of their product upon the poor who are paying with their lives, their homes, and their ability to grow food, as they begin to deal with the impacts that 1˚C of warming is already inflicting on them.
In a new report, the Climate Justice Programme examines cases across the world and finds that climate litigation will dwarf all other litigation, including tobacco and asbestos, in terms of both the number of plaintiffs and the timeframe over which it can stretch.
Along with corporations, climate law champions are also targeting the governments that have colluded with the Carbon Majors to enable the continuation of a fossil fuel based economy. Governments that fail to take on the coal, oil, and gas giants are likely to be targeted in future cases brought by concerned citizens, particularly youth.
Governments that have continued to support—and collude with—the Carbon Majors have done so through promoting, subsidizing and locking in a fossil-fuel based energy system, with the full knowledge of the catastrophic impacts of climate destabilization and ocean acidification that would result from continuing to burn fossil fuels.
In the Paris Agreement, the world’s governments agreed to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5˚C—but the climate pledges on the table at Paris will result in roughly 3-4˚C of warming, with insufficient finance to implement them. The deal was widely acknowledged to signal the end of the fossil fuel era, yet the phrase “fossil fuels” never appears throughout the entire document, nor does the agreement contain any binding requirements that governments commit to concrete climate action.
Citizens and some governments are now beginning to seek redress in court, with groundbreaking cases emerging around the world, some of which are comparable to (and based on some of the legal precedents set by) litigation against the tobacco industry.
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The Philippines Human Rights Commission is investigating fossil fuel corporations for their role in the human rights impacts of climate change. A Peruvian farmer is seeking $21,000 in damages from Germany utility giant RWE in German courts. State governments within the US are investigating fossil fuel corporations such as ExxonMobil for allegedly lying to the public and investors about the science of climate change when their own scientists had been warning them of the issue for decades.
In June 2015, a Dutch court decided that the government was not doing enough to address climate change and ordered it to do more. A Pakistani judge has declared that its government’s inaction on climate change offends the fundamental rights of its citizens, including constitutional and human rights.
Youth in the US, supported by Our Children’s Trust, are citing their constitutional and public trust rights in seeking science-based CO2 emission reductions from their governments, and have won major recent victories in Massachusetts, Washington, New Mexico, and in a federal lawsuit.
Rich, polluting countries have deliberately sought to avoid liability and compensation for climate damages, and introduced safeguards to this end in the Paris Agreement. However, the deal does not prevent countries from relying upon the document, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or other aspects of international law in establishing state liability for climate change.
The Paris Agreement is also silent on the liability of private actors, such as fossil fuel companies. International tobacco law bans the tobacco industry from lobbying on public health and encourages governments to pursue private and criminal liability of corporate actors, but there is no such provision in the climate arena.
It is long past time for international climate law to recognize private sector liability. The global community should encourage governments to pursue legal action against the fossil fuel industry.