Climate Justice has Begun | Opinion

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

In an historic ruling that could change the trajectory of a rapidly heating planet, a court of law with binding jurisdiction over most of Europe has ruled that governments can be held liable for inadequate responses to climate change.

The European Court of Human Rights determined that rising temperatures in Switzerland caused direct and tangible health consequences among Swiss citizens, and that governments failing to take adequate steps to mitigate and reduce carbon emissions could owe damages to people hurt by their inaction.

Europe could take climate cases in a new direction

The ECHR ruling is unprecedented in several respects, beginning with its reliance on principles of human rights. The Court ruled that governments failing to do enough to address climate change were violating the European Convention on Human Rights, which holds as its first tenet that, “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.” By failing to meet its own climate targets, the court held, the Swiss government injured citizens’ fundamental right to life.

The plaintiffs themselves were also unique. In climate cases pending around the world, including in the U.S., the vast majority of plaintiffs are young people worried about how they will survive on a burning planet with rapidly disappearing habitats and resources.

The ECHR case, in contrast, was brought by elderly plaintiffs, most of whom were women in their 70s who alleged that their elderly years and gender made them particularly vulnerable to health risks linked to climate change. Heatwaves, in particular, can be deadly for the elderly as excessive heat triggers a strained cardiovascular response. Cognizant of their own time limitations, these women sued to benefit the next generation. One plaintiff told the BBC, “We know statistically that in 10 years we will be gone. So whatever we do now, we are not doing for ourselves, but for the sake of our children and our children's children.”

The ECHR ruling could directly and immediately shape industrial policies throughout the industrialized economies of Europe. Although it falls to Switzerland to comply with the ruling, its precedent is legally binding on all 46 member states including Germany, the U.K., France and Italy, all fuel-burning heavy hitters.

Climate challenges in the U.S.

The European Court ruled that Switzerland’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions had been “woefully inadequate.” Although the ruling isn’t binding on U.S. courts, the domestic fossil fuel industry will be directly affected by it, since the U.S. has recently become the biggest supplier of crude oil to the European Union.

Climate litigants in the U.S. have followed a different strategy. State and local governments are now suing fossil fuel companies and the American Petroleum Institute for damages caused by climate change, astronomical damages that fall to states, cities, and towns that can’t afford to pay for them.

These climate cases name private fossil fuel companies as defendants, seeking to hold for-profit industries including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell responsible for increasing carbon dioxide and methane emissions caused by their products.

Big oil’s campaign of deception

Legal claims and allegations pending in the U.S. focus largely on big oil’s deceptive practices. Like the tobacco disinformation cases from the 1990s, these cases allege fraud, nuisance, conspiracy, and negligence arising from the industry’s long-standing public disinformation campaigns.

Congress has conducted numerous investigations into big oil’s pattern of deception. Despite clear, written evidence that oil executives have long known the causal connection between fossil fuels and climate change, industry executives have consistently lied about it to protect their profits.

Nearly 10 years ago, Democratic members of Congress addressed a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluding that “there was a coordinated campaign of deception” on climate science by ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Peabody Energy and other members of the fossil fuel industry. Big oil’s targeted acts of deception over a decades-long campaign included “forged letters to Congress,” secret funding of allegedly independent but industry-controlled scientists, creating “fake grassroots organizations” to influence policy, and multiple, ongoing, and in-depth “efforts to deliberately manufacture uncertainty about climate science.”

A young person’s lament

Climate activists should be uplifted and encouraged by the ECHR decision, as its effects begin to ripple through the fossil fuel industry, industrialized economies and reluctant courts. It won’t change the prognosis or the immediate future — today’s youth will still live through the worst effects of climate destruction, even though they had nothing to do with the policies that caused it.

But one major, outcome-determinative weapon remains: the right to vote. As enraging as it is for young Americans to hear oil-financed politicians deny climate change (“Drill baby, drill!”), we could fund the transition to clean energy — including an upgraded, nationwide grid of sufficient capacity — if every young adult simply voted.

Sabrina Haake is a columnist and 25 year litigator specializing in 1st and 14th Amendment defense. Follow her on Substack.


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