The term “climate change litigation” has become a shorthand for a wide range of different legal proceedings associated with addressing the environmental impacts of climate change. Plaintiffs in climate change lawsuits may include individuals, non-governmental organizations, private companies, state or local level governments, and even company shareholders who, through various legal theories, allege that they have been harmed or will suffer future harm as a direct result of the world’s changing climate. The targets of climate change litigation have included individual public and private companies, government bodies, and even entire industry groups. While there appears to be no shortage of plaintiffs, defendants, or legal theories emerging in climate change litigation, one clear trend is that the number of these lawsuits has grown dramatically in recent years. By one count, more than fifty climate change suits have been filed in the United States every year since 2009, with over one hundred suits being filed in both 2016 and 2017.
In light of the growing trend of climate change litigation, Jenner & Block’s Corporate Environmental Lawyer blog is starting a periodic blog update which will discuss the emerging trends and key cases in this litigation arena. In each update, our blog will focus on a sub-set of climate change cases and discuss recent decisions on the topic. In Part 1 of this series, we will be discussing Citizen-Initiated Litigation Against National Governments.
Perhaps the most high-profile and well-publicized cases in the climate change litigation arena have been lawsuits brought by private citizens against their own national government. A common objective of these cases is to push governments to implement policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions through legal hooks such as international agreements, international treaties, or constitutional provisions. While the early focal point for these cases has been European countries, citizen-initiated litigation continues to spread across the globe, including the United States.
Several examples of this emerging type of litigation have included:
- Urgenda Foundation v. The State of the Netherlands (2015): In the first internationally recognized climate change lawsuit asserted against a national government, a Dutch environmental group, the Urgenda Foundation, represented over 900 citizens in a lawsuit alleging that the Dutch government had failed to address the risks of climate change. Ruling in support of the citizen group, the Hague court determined that the Dutch government was required to protect the living environment from the dangers of climate change by reducing CO2 emissions a minimum of 25%—relative to 1990 levels—by the year 2020. This decision was later upheld by the Dutch court of appeals which recognized the plaintiffs’ claims under the European Convention on Human Rights, an international convention to protect human rights in Europe.
- Friends of the Irish Environment v. Ireland (2018): Following the success of the Urgenda litigation, an Irish advocacy group, Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), filed suit in the Irish High Court in an attempt to compel the government to increase its GHG emissions reduction goals. Following the path laid out in Urgenda, the FIE plaintiffs asserted their claims under the theory that the Irish government was not fulfilling its objectives under the Paris Climate Agreement. This case was argued before the High Court on January 22, 2019, and is currently awaiting a decision.
- Juliana v. United States, 217 F. Supp. 3d 1224 (2016): Launched by the U.S. advocacy group, Our Children’s Trust, Juliana is a lawsuit filed by 21 young people (ages eight to nineteen) who assert that the United States is denying its youngest citizens their constitutional right to a safe and livable climate. Unlike the cases brought in Ireland or the Netherlands, the plaintiffs in Juliana have not taken the position that the United States is bound to reduce GHG emissions through any form of internal law or agreement. Instead, the plaintiffs’ complaint asserts the legal theory that the United States Constitution provides its citizens a substantive due process right “to a climate system capable of sustaining human life.” In conjunction with this argument, the plaintiffs have asserted a unique application of the centuries-old “Public Trust Doctrine,” arguing that the climate itself is a natural resource that must be held in trust for the people. Juliana has gone through a complex legal history, including multiple attempts at dismissal from both the Obama and now Trump administrations. Currently, the case is being briefed in front of the 9th Circuit on interlocutory appeal.