Limiting Dangerous Climate Change: The Critical Role of Citizen Suits and Domestic Courts—Despite the Paris Agreement

CIGI Papers No. 101

May 11, 2016

This paper focuses on the emerging new role of citizen suits, domestic courts and human rights commissions in limiting dangerous climate change. Given the failure of states to stop the almost constant increase in global carbon emissions (and now the worrying practical and legal gaps in the 2015 Paris Agreement), frustrated citizens are increasingly looking to domestic courts to require governments to mitigate emissions and limit climate harm. This emerging role is demonstrated in three important 2015 decisions: Urgenda from the Netherlands; Leghari from Pakistan; and Foster v Washington Department of Ecology from the United States. These suits before domestic courts have achieved significant results in the battle against climate change. Each court found there was a legal duty on the respondent government to rein in carbon emissions or take other measures to prevent significant climate-related human and civil rights impacts. Also in 2015, the Philippines Human Rights Commission agreed to investigate and hold hearings as to the responsibility of large international fossil fuel companies for substantial impairment of human rights in the Philippines caused by extreme weather events.

What are the factors that have led, and may increasingly lead, courts to act on these citizen complaints? Some key ones are the recent availability of authoritative climate science that convincingly clarifies why carbon emissions must be urgently limited; and apparent judicial distress as judges learn that states clearly know the dangers and have committed to act, but are failing to implement measures necessary to prevent climate chaos. Where a state or subnational government is failing to act with alacrity to prevent such harm, the circumstances are ripe for domestic judges to require governments to undertake positive actions. Issuing orders to prevent harm to citizens or impairment of rights is a traditional judicial role.

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