Dutch Citizens Sue Over Climate Inaction, A Sign of Things to Come

As a sign of things to come, a class action lawsuit is in front of a Netherlands court this week to force the government to take stronger action on climate change. 

900 citizens are involved, led by the Urgenda Foundation, which asked citizens to join as co-plaintiffs through ‘crowd pleading.’ The lawsuit was filed in late 2013 and this week, a district court heard the case.

They are asking the court to:

1. Declare that global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius will lead to a violation of fundamental human rights worldwide.

2. Declare that the Dutch State is acting unlawfully by not contributing its proportional share to preventing a global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius.

3. Order the Dutch State to reduce carbon emissions 40% by 2020 (below 1990 levels), the level scientists have determined is necessary to keep temperature rise below 2C. 

Can Courts Help on This?

While it might seem unrealistic for courts to weigh in on this, Jaap Spier, Advocate-General to the Dutch Supreme Court, says that courts actually can force countries to adopt "effective climate policies" and they are "perhaps the only way to break through the political apathy about climate change."

He says: "Does a judge need to be an activist in order to make a statement about climate change? "No, it is just a matter of applying existing law, although undoubtedly not all judges will be open to this. Judges with the courage to give a ruling on this will one day be applauded, whereas those who don’t will eventually be tarred and feathered."

Indeed, the case coincides with the March launch of the "Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations," developed by High Court judges, law professors and advocates from the Netherlands, US, Brazil, China, India and other countries.

The Oslo principles say that governments have a legal obligation to avert climate change under existing international human rights law, environmental law and tort law.

In a letter to Urgenda, the Dutch government acknowledged that its actions are not sufficient to prevent dangerous climate change. In legal terms, this is a wrongful act of the State, says Urgenda. "The Dutch Supreme Court has consistently upheld the principle that the government can be held legally accountable for not taking sufficient action to prevent foreseeable harm."

Already, lawyers are following suit with legal proceedings against the Belgian government, supported by 8500 citizens.

Urgenda’s case is inspired by attorney Roger Cox’s book,  Revolution Justified, which argues that the courts can play a pivotal role on climate change.

Cox, who is the lawyer on the case, says: "We’re now 23 years down the road of the climate change treaty and it’s obvious that international politics has not brought much good to the world. The power of politics, fossil fuel companies and the banks are so large but there is one other powerful system with a lot of wisdom and that is the law."

"There is a parallel here with the situation in the 1950s in the United States. It was the courts that decided that segregation in schools was not constitutional. It wasn’t a big issue in society and it wasn’t political but it was a few people fighting and the courts following up that created a huge change in American society.

In the US, children are leading the charge to force action on climate change, with legal actions filed in every state. The case got all the way to the Supreme Court, which sadly decided not to take it up. It was heard last week in an Oregon court.

Climate Silence

They want the atmosphere to be declared a "public trust" that deserves protection. The concept has previously been used to clean up polluted rivers and coastlines. In 2012, a Texas judge ruled the state IS responsible for the atmosphere.

Last year, a letter was sent to fossil fuel, mining, insurance and carbon-intensive manufacturers. It warned them that the day is drawing near when they will be held responsible for crimes against nature and society by fueling climate change and misinforming the public on this emergency.

Read the Oslo Principles:

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