Climate change: Politicians don’t do justice. Lawyers and scientists could do it in court

It was a simple but strong message – as negotiators struck deals to delay action, Pacific island nations such as Tuvalu are sinking into rising waters and could be entirely engulfed by the end of this season. this century.

But the three activists – Adetola Stephanie Onamade, Marina Tricks and Jerry Amokwandoh, all in their twenties – and the Plan B Earth charity are trying to challenge that whole concept. The activists have Nigerian and Trinidadian, Mexican and Ghanaian origins respectively, and believe that historical transmitters owe a duty of care to people, such as their loved ones, in the countries of the South.

“[The court] rejected the idea that our family life included our family around the world or our family at home, ”Amokwandoh told CNN. “And they said your family can only be limited to the British Isles. It’s a colonial state of mind. “

Tricks said they were particularly targeting ongoing fossil fuel projects, including a coal mine project in the North West of England, which is under review, and exploration for oil in the sea. North.

“We’re finally screwed by the system, by this government, because of its funding for the climate crisis,” Tricks said.

“It actively finances extractivist projects that contaminate our land, our water and our air.

A UK government spokesperson said: “We are not commenting on the ongoing legal proceedings.”

This type of litigation is something the UK government, and many others around the world, will need to get used to. In another case, a number of activists backed by a group called Paid to Pollute will take Johnson’s administration to the High Court on December 8 to block state money flowing into new fossil fuel projects. The group highlights the billions of pounds the UK government has spent on oil and gas subsidies since the Paris Agreement in 2015, which committed the world to trying to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, but preferably 1, 5.

Globally, the number of legal cases related to climate change has more than doubled since 2015, according to the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. Just over 800 cases were filed between 1986 and 2014, but more than 1,000 have been taken to court since the year the Paris Agreement was signed, according to its latest report published in July.

“We are seeing many groups using the courts to try to advance climate action where there might be frustrations with political processes,” said Catherine Higham, Climate Change Laws of the World program coordinator at the Grantham Research Institute. .

The cases provided a kind of “interaction” between court decisions and politics, she said. In a case brought by young Germans to the country’s Constitutional Court in April, for example, the court ruled that the government must strengthen its climate plans to comply with the goals of the Paris Agreement. This legal decision started a more political debate on the climate, and the government ended up stepping up its plans beyond the court order.

“We are seeing plaintiffs using the courts to try to advance climate action, but also as a tool to push the boundaries of political debate,” she said.

And the big fossil fuel companies are also in litigation. A Dutch court in The Hague rendered landmark ruling against oil giant Shell in May, ordering the company to cut emissions by 45% by 2030, from 2019 levels, to comply with the Accord from Paris. Shell is appealing the decision.

This decision could be truly transformative. It would be very difficult for a company like Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% without switching much of its oil to renewable or low-emission energy sources.

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Higham says the ruling could pave the way for similar court rulings against other major emitters. A similar case against the French oil giant Total is under investigation in France.

“One of the differences between the Shell case and the others is that instead of considering compensation, the court made a prospective order on what Shell should do – a statement that what Shell is doing now is insufficient. “she said. noted.

“While we cannot say how other cases, like the one against Total, will ultimately end, there is a great possibility that these cases will result in similar judgments against many other companies, or at least, that there are many more actions building on the foundations provided by the Shell affair. ”

Science finally has a say in the courts

Climate scientists have long lamented the huge gap between science and policy. But for a long time, they were also largely excluded from another arena of power: the judiciary.

Today, courts are increasingly considering science in their climate-related decisions, according to Bill Hare, senior scientist and CEO of think-tank Climate Analytics.

“Courts are looking at what science says, they are giving more and more weight to reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” Hare said, referring to the landmark UN report. on climate science published every six to seven years. . The most recent was released in August amid a wave of extreme weather events in the northern hemisphere.

“There is still a huge gap between what countries are proposing in terms of emissions commitments and what is needed, according to the science of the IPCC, so this is another dimension to this that the courts will be looking at,” said Hare.

“I think this is something that is going to be very trying for governments. We have seen it in the last 12 to 24 months already and it can only grow.”

Climate scientists are increasingly called upon to share their expertise in court, and as they succeed in making clear links between country and business emissions and their impacts – such as heat waves or forest fires. – large transmitters have less room to hide. This happens even in cross-border cases.

One example is the case of a group of Austrian activists called AllRise against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The group is asking the International Criminal Court to hear the case, in which they say Bolsonaro’s policies that enabled the Amazon’s rapid deforestation have released emissions that have contributed to climate change, causing deaths and real loss and damage to people’s livelihoods.

Scientists were able to estimate the amount of carbon dioxide and methane emitted by these policies and found that they accounted for about 1% of global greenhouse gases each year. This is about the same as the UK’s total emissions, they wrote in an expert submission to the case.

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They also found that the amount emitted would cause more than 180,000 excess heat-related deaths globally by 2100. That’s even if global emissions are drastically reduced.

“Climate change is killing people. And Bolsonaro’s policy not only increases emissions, but increases the intensity of heat waves, and it affects the lives of people around the world, and, of course, locally, it destroys livelihoods, “said Friederike Otto of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College of London, who was among the scientists behind the written submission of the case.

“This kind of environmental destruction, at such a level, should be considered a crime against humanity because it destroys livelihoods on a large scale.”

The Bolsonaro administration did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Otto also leads the World Weather Attribution project, which is a group of scientists who use data modeling and analysis to estimate how much climate change has contributed to an extreme weather event.

Historic Northwest Heat Wave "practically impossible"  without man-made climate crisis, according to a study

This type of science is useful in tort law cases, when a court needs to assess a tort that has caused loss or damage.

“I think it’s also important in the Bolsonaro example, because you can’t hide behind generics anymore,” Otto said. “It’s not a vague future generation that will suffer. These are real people here losing their livelihoods and real dollars that someone had to pay.”

The Bolsonaro case is truly unique in that it is difficult to advocate internationally on climate issues. There is no international tribunal dedicated to climate crimes, for example, and even the ICC has its limits. It may be limited by its own power politics and some countries have refused to cooperate in cases involving them.

ClientEarth, a non-profit organization that provides legal services and advice in climate affairs, has had several successes, including a 2020 case that led Poland to halt construction of a coal-fired power plant.

A lawyer for the group, Sophie Marjanac, told CNN that the failure of COP26 to put in place a compensation program for climate impacts was “nothing less than a betrayal”.

“Climate change is inherently uneven: its impacts – such as droughts, heat waves, floods and rising waters – are felt mostly in the less responsible countries. It is clearly a matter of human rights, ”she said.

“When governments do not act, litigation will increasingly be used to hold them accountable.”

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