Guest essay by Eric Worrall
For years many fossil fuel companies seemed content to stay quiet in the face of public vilification, but with big lawsuits looming, this strategy of avoiding public climate controversy is looking increasingly precarious.
Four climate change lawsuits to watch in 2018
Did you know it’s possible to take legal action to fight global warming? Ever more citizens are doing just that. Here are four landmark climate change lawsuits with significant decisions pending in 2018.
According to a survey by the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia Law School, climate change lawsuits are on the increase — with nearly 900 cases in 24 countries as of March last year — and courts will play a greater role to in the fight against global warming over the year to come.
Citizens vs. the government of the Netherlands
It started with a precedent-setting climate lawsuit in the summer of 2015, when 900 Dutch citizens, represented by the Urgenda Foundation, took their government to court to cut greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
This was the first time a group of citizens sued their own government over climate change action — and won.
The lawsuit resulted in a Dutch court ordering the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions nationwide by at least 25 percent by the year of 2020 (compared to 1990 levels), forcing it to take more measures against climate change.
Youth vs. the government of the United States
Another lawsuit inspired by the Dutch court case was started by a group of American youths, who are suing the US government for failing to curb climate change.
The 21 plaintiffs, who are between 10 and 21 years old, and come from all over the US, filed the climate change lawsuit together with their attorneys and climate scientist James Hansen in 2015.
All the kids and teenagers in the plaintiff group have been personally impacted by climate change. Some of them live on farms being affected by drought, while others have lost their homes due to floods, or face health issues due to forest fires.
An initial ruling in an Oregon district court upheld their main argument that “the government has known for more than 50 years that the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels was destabilizing the climate system in a way that would significantly endanger plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millennia.”
Peruvian farmer vs. German energy company RWE
Not just governments are facing legal challenges over climate — also a Peruvian farmer and mountain guide is suing German energy firm RWE.
He is claiming that the company’s contribution to climate change is threatening his home, and is asking RWE to take on financial responsibility for the damage.
ExxonMobil vs. US state attorneys
In the US, a similar case is coming to a head this year: the first-ever US legal action aimed at holding the oil giant ExxonMobil accountable for its climate change coverup.
The American multinational oil gas corporation is being sued over failing to safeguard Massachusetts communities against pollution relating to climate change impacts, and lying to the public about the risks of climate change.
Up until now it has mostly been enough to simply fight each case on its merits. But as the shock victory in the Netherlands demonstrates, fighting each case solely on the evidence presented at the hearing for that case may not always be enough.
Unless fossil fuel companies do more to publicly challenge the junk science underpinning the climate lawsuit gold rush, they could end up haemorrhaging large settlements to green opportunists.