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Climate lawsuits as the citizen-led path towards climate transition? A short guide to climate litigation

Citizens engagement in climate-related policy making can improve climate change mitigation and adaptation. Climate change regulation should be certain, because only the legal certainty can guarantee the effectiveness of its implementation.

We encourage you to read the Climate lawsuits as the citizen-led path towards climate transition? A short guide to climate litigation report, written by Aleksandra Wójtowicz and Wojciech Lewandowski.

The Conference on the Future of Europe is a unique political initiative that aimed to embrace the role of the citizen activism throughout the European Union. However, it is not the only form of climate activism available for ordinary citizens in the EU. Citizens would engage in the social and political life in a variety of forms, and in the recent years the citizen activism has become far more varied. People would share their opinions by attending climate manifestations, organizing climate protests (increasingly often in radical and controversial manner), actively participating in numerous local initiatives or taking part in citizen panels and debates. Within this trend a new form of citizen participation has appeared – a climate litigation.

Climate litigation is a trend in the environmental law that uses the legal practice for mitigating and adapting to climate change that could be attributed to the actions of public institutions or private companies. United Nations Environment Program would define climate lawsuits simply as any litigation that “includes cases that raise material issues of law or fact relating to climate change mitigation, adaptation, or the science of climate change”. The very idea of a climate lawsuit is based on the idea of “distinctive causal field” that is described in Petra Minnerop’s and Friederike Otto’s article Climate Change and Causation: Joining Law and Climate Science on the Basis of Formal Logic:

There is sufficient robust evidence to establish a strong causal connection between historic and future anthropogenic GHG emissions, an increase in the global mean surface temperature and the severity and frequency of certain individual severe weather and climate related events. To capture this evidence, we introduce the term “distinctive causal field.” This term thus denotes a strong causal connection between anthropogenic emissions and an increase in the likelihood and intensity of classes (or types) of extreme events.

The above argument assumes that based on a formal logic, it is possible to link the legal concept to scientific findings and thus a concrete climate impact can be attributed to a specific emitter. This assumption is a key idea to the concept of the climate lawsuit because enables to attribute liability to a concrete legal or natural person. Hence, it is possible to sue the emitter for the damage that the emissions might have caused to the climate. Moreover, climate lawsuits also concentrate on the fact that the governments are not helping the societies adapt to the inevitable changes as soon and as effectively as possible.

The report perceives climate litigation as the cases in which the plaintiff expects action by the defendants to protect the climate and its stable conditions. It must be emphasized that climate litigation is a term that has its origins in the United States and the US legal order. The very idea that one ruling can directly influence the legal system is directly related to the precedent law itself. Moreover, it is the US that remains a leader in the field of the climate lawsuits and has the most pending cases with over thousand in a court system. Determining which climate was launched the first is a difficult task as sources contradict each other. 

Nowadays, however, climate lawsuits are to be found in a greater number of states including the European states. The Climate Change Laws of the World (CCLW) Database maintained by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment contains 2 089 ongoing or concluded cases of climate change litigation from around the world. And this number is growing.