It has been a busy few weeks for climate litigators. On July 31st the Supreme Court in Dublin compelled the Irish government to devise a more detailed plan for the country’s transition to a low-carbon economy by 2050. This is one of the few times a court has forced a government to up its climate game. In another case in December, the Dutch Supreme Court found the government’s emission-reduction goal insufficient and ordered further cuts.
Meanwhile Katta O’Donnell, a student, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Australian government last month, alleging that it failed to disclose the risk that climate change poses to sovereign-bond holders like herself. That echoes another Australian case in which a young man is suing his pension fund for not revealing climate-related risks to his investment. Indeed, climate litigation is something of a burning issue down under. A recent study found that Australia saw the second highest number of climate-related lawsuits between 1986 and 2020, trailing only America.
Non-profit organisations and green activists, frustrated by the lack of state action, are increasingly turning to the courts, leading to a spike in climate-related lawsuits in recent years. Often these suits invent clever new ways to promote climate action. The two Australian cases, for instance, are thought to be the first of their kind. If successful, they could inspire cases in other countries.
It is not just governments in the dock. Businesses are increasingly common targets. There are at least 40 ongoing cases against fossil-fuel producers, mostly in America. They range from claims by shareholder that oil firms misrepresented climate risks to cases in which cities and citizens are seeking damages for natural disasters made worse by global warming. Because causation is so hard to prove, the latter are particularly difficult to win.
But climate activists expect that winning such cases will be easier in the future. The science of linking disasters to climate change will improve, and they hope that next generation of judges will be better acquainted with climate-change issues and may take a tougher stance. Political pressure may help, too. Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential contender, recently unveiled a climate plan that promises to support legal action against polluters. The courts may become an important weapon in the fight against climate change.