Court­room bat­tles loom over ad­verse cli­mate change ef­fects

Pretoria News - - NEWS -

A CLUTCH of high-pro­file le­gal cases over re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ef­fects of cli­mate change will be fought out in court­rooms this year as claims stack up against both gov­ern­ments and some of the world’s big­gest oil and en­ergy com­pa­nies.

Law­suits in the US brought by young ac­tivists and sev­eral Cal­i­for­nian cities are most likely to make waves, but le­gal ac­tion by a Peru­vian farmer in Ger­many and Green­peace in Nor­way could also cause rip­ples, said lawyers and aca­demics.

“There is a trend to­wards more lit­i­ga­tion around cli­mate change, and prob­a­bly the lack of po­lit­i­cal ac­tion in the US may in­crease that trend,” said So­phie Mar­janac, a Lon­don-based lawyer at non-profit en­vi­ron­men­tal law group Client Earth.

“Where there’s an ab­di­ca­tion of lead­er­ship on cli­mate ac­tion, I think the courts will have a greater role to play,” she said.

Lawyers and cam­paign­ers are closely watch­ing the loom­ing le­gal bat­tles they say could set the stage for fresh claims against ma­jor oil and in­dus­trial com­pa­nies, and pres­sure gov­ern­ments to ramp up ac­tion on cli­mate change.

With US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his cab­i­net mem­bers named as de­fen­dants, the Ju­liana v. United States case brought by 21 young ac­tivists from Ore­gon is set to be one of the most closely fol­lowed this year.

In the fed­eral case, sched­uled for trial next month, the plain­tiffs hope to es­tab­lish that the gov­ern­ment’s cli­mate change poli­cies have failed to pro­tect their con­sti­tu­tional right to live in a hab­it­able environment.

The case re­mains locked in le­gal limbo, how­ever, as the gov­ern­ment tries to block it from pro­ceed­ing.

Lawyers and aca­demics say Ju­liana builds on the ground­break­ing Ur­genda case brought by hun­dreds of Dutch cit­i­zens in 2015, which saw the gov­ern­ment or­dered by a dis­trict court to ac­cel­er­ate re­duc­tions of green­house gas emis­sions.

How­ever, that out­come is now be­ing ap­pealed, with a de­ci­sion likely early this year.

Else­where, a Jan­uary judg­ment is ex­pected in a case brought by Green­peace Nordic and en­vi­ron­men­tal group Na­ture and Youth against Nor­way, which they claim has breached its pledge to com­bat cli­mate change by grant­ing oil and gas ex­plo­ration rights.

Some lawyers and re­searchers say claims seek­ing spe­cific dam­ages from en­ergy and in­dus­trial com­pa­nies for ac­tions that may have con­trib­uted to cli­mate change could have a big­ger im­pact than con­sti­tu­tional cases.

A suc­cess­ful rul­ing against a heavy­weight cor­po­rate could po­ten­tially un­leash a wave of sim­i­lar claims, say case watch­ers, who ref­er­ence long-run­ning fights against to­bacco, as­bestos and pes­ti­cide man­u­fac­tur­ers over harm to hu­man health.

At least seven Cal­i­for­nian cities and coun­ties have brought law­suits against ma­jor fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies.

San Fran­cisco and Oak­land are seek­ing bil­lions of dol­lars to help pro­tect against ris­ing sea lev­els they blame on cli­mate change.

“Why should tax­pay­ers and im­pacted com­mu­ni­ties alone bear the grow­ing costs of cli­mate im­pacts when fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies have played an out­sized role in mak­ing the prob­lem worse?” said Peter Frumhoff, di­rec­tor of sci­ence and pol­icy at the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists, af­ter Santa Cruz city and county both filed law­suits this month.

Tracy Hester, a lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton Law Cen­ter, said such claims could “re­de­fine the rules of the game”. “They’re es­sen­tially not try­ing to bring a global claim that’s go­ing to lock up all these is­sues in one court… they’re dif­fer­ent in that they’re seek­ing dam­ages.”

Trump’s move to pull out of the Paris cli­mate change ac­cord and roll back en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions means cam­paign­ers are in­creas­ingly re­sort­ing to lit­i­ga­tion, as they did un­der for­mer pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush, said case watch­ers.

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