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Climate change: Politicians fail to deliver justice. It could be done in court by scientists and lawyers
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Climate change: Politicians fail to deliver justice. It could be done in court by scientists and lawyers


It was a simple message, but it was powerful: while negotiators made arrangements to delay action, islands in the Pacific, such as Tuvalu, are sinking in rising waters and could be swallowed whole as soon as this century ends.

A campaign poster showing climate activists, from left, Marina Tricks, Adetola Stephanie Onamade and Jerry Amokwandoh, who are trying to sue the UK government.

The charity Plan B Earth and Adetola Stephanie Onamade — three activists in their 20s — are challenging this whole concept. The activists are from Nigeria, Trinidadian and Mexican heritages and believe that historical emitters owe a duty of care to those in the Global South.

“[The court]CNN’s Amokwandoh said that he had dismissed the idea that family life meant our family all over the world or our family back home. “And they were saying your family cannot be limited to the British islands. It’s a colonial mindset.

Tricks stated that they are targeting fossil fuel projects in the pipeline, such as a proposed coal mine near northwest England, which is currently under review, and the exploration for oil in the North Sea.

Tricks stated that “we are ultimately being screwed over, by the system by this government because of its financing of the climate crisis.”

“It is actively financing extractivist project that are contaminating land, water, and air.”

CNN reached Johnson and Kwarteng’s offices but they did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment. CNN was directed to Kwarteng by the Treasury.

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This type of litigation is something that the UK government and many other countries will have to learn to live with. Paid to Pollute, a group of activists backing Johnson, will sue Johnson’s administration to stop state money from being used for new fossil fuel projects. The group cites billions of pounds the UK government spent on oil-and gas subsidies since 2015’s Paris Agreement. This agreement committed the world to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius but prefer 1.5 degrees Celsius.

According to the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, the London School of Economics, the global number of climate-related legal cases has more that doubled since 2015. According to its most recent report published in July, more than 800 cases were filed between 1986 & 2014, but over 1,000 have been filed since the year that the Paris Agreement was signed.

“We’re seeing a lot of people using the courts to try to advance climate action where there might have been frustrations with the politics,” said Catherine Higham from the Grantham Research Institute, coordinator of the Climate Change Laws of the World program.

She stated that the cases were bringing about a type of “interplay” between politics and court rulings. In a case brought by German youths to the country’s Constitutional Court in AprilThe court ruled that the government must increase its climate plans to comply with the Paris Agreement goals. This legal decision sparked more political debate about climate, and the government ended by enhancing its plans beyond what the court ordered.

She said that plaintiffs are using the courts to advance climate action but also to push the boundaries in political debate.

A Shell fuel tanker at the an oil refinery in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Major fossil fuel companies are also being targeted by litigation. A Dutch court in The Hague declared a landmark ruling against oil giant Shell in MayThe company was ordered to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030. This is to ensure that it is in compliance with the Paris Agreement. Shell appeals the decision.

This ruling could be a game-changer. It would be difficult for a company like Shell to reduce its emissions by 45 percent without converting a lot of its oil to renewable energy sources.

Higham claims that this decision could lead to similar court decisions against other major emitters. France is currently hearing a similar case regarding Total, the French oil giant.

She stated that Shell’s case is unique in that it does not look at compensation. Instead, the court issued a forward-looking order to Shell about what Shell should do — a declaration that Shell’s current actions are insufficient.

“While we don’t know how other cases, such as the one against Total, might end, there is a high possibility that similar judgments against other companies will be made, or that there will be many additional actions that build on the foundation provided by the Shell Case.”

Science finally has its day in court

Climate scientists have long been moaned about the huge gap between science and political action.They were, however, excluded for a long period from another arena of power: the court system.

According to Bill Hare (CEO of Climate Analytics) and a senior scientist, courts today are more open to science in climate-related rulings.

Hare said that courts are now looking at the science and giving more weight to reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC). Hare was referring to the UN climate science report that is published every six- to seven years. The most recent was published in August amid an avalanche of extreme weather events in the Northern Hemisphere.

Hare stated, “There is still an enormous gap between what countries are proposing in terms of emissions promises and what’s required, according to IPCC science so that’s another dimension that this will be looked at by the courts.”

“I think that’s something which’s going to prove very challenging on governments. It’s something we’ve seen in the last 12-24 months, and it will only get worse.”

Climate scientists are being increasingly called upon to share their expertise at courts of law. As they become better at identifying links between countries’ or companies’ emissions and their impacts, like heatwaves and wildfires, big emitters have less space to hide. This is happening even in transboundary matters.

One example is the case of AllRise, an Austrian activist group, against Brazilian President Jair Bosonaro. The group is asking the International Criminal Court for an indictment. It claims that Bolsonaro’s policies, which allowed for rapid deforestation of Amazon, caused climate change, causing real and immediate losses to people’s livelihoods, as well as deaths.

Scientists were able estimate how much carbon dioxide and methane were emitted by these policies and found that it accounted approximately 1% of the global greenhouse gas emissions each year. They wrote in an expert submission that this is about the same amount as the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

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They also found that global heat-related deaths would rise by more than 180,000 if the emissions continue to increase before 2100. This is even if global emission are reduced significantly.

“Climate Change is killing people.” Bolsonaro’s politics not only increase emissions but also intensify heatwaves. This affects people all over the world and, of course locally, it’s destroying their livelihoods,” Friederike Otto, Imperial College of London’s Grantham Institute, said. She was one of the scientists who submitted the written submission.

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

CNN reached Bolsonaro’s office but did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Otto also heads the World Weather Attribution (WWAT) project, which consists of scientists who use data analysis and modeling to estimate how much climate change contributed towards an extreme weather event.

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This type of science is useful for tort law cases when a court must assess a civil wrong that has caused damage or loss.

Otto stated that Otto also believes it is important in the Bolsonaro case because generics are no longer acceptable. “It is not some future generation that will suffer. It’s concrete people who are losing their livelihoods and the concrete dollars that someone had pay.”

Bolsonaro is a unique case because it shows how difficult it is to litigate internationally on climate issues. There is no international court that can prosecute climate crimes. Even the ICC has its limitations. It can be limited by its own power politics. Some countries have refused to cooperate with cases that could implicate them.

ClientEarth is a non-profit organization that provides advice and legal services in climate cases. It has had many successes, including a 2020 case, which led to Poland stopping the construction of a coal mine.

Sophie Marjanac, a lawyer for the group, said that COP26’s failures to establish a compensation scheme for climate impacts was “no lesser than a betrayal.”

“Climate Change is inherently unequal: Its impacts — such as droughts and heatwaves flooding and rising seas – are most felt in those countries least responsible. She stated that this is clearly a human rights issue.

“When governments fail to take action, litigation will be increasingly used to hold them responsible.”


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