Mar 3rd, 2021, 12:10 AM

The True Climate Change Countdown

By Jacob Rogers
Image Credit: Jacob Rogers
What is the role of courts, NGOs, and citizens in the fight for effective climate policy?

On February 3, 2021, the Paris Administrative Court found the French government responsible for failing to fully meet its goals in reducing greenhouse gases. The case, and subsequent ruling, has received immense international attention, marking it as one of this century's most important cases in the fight to reduce global emissions. It began in late 2018 when four Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Greenpeace France, It’s Everyone’s Business, Oxfam France, and the Foundation for Nature and Mankind (l'affaire du siècle), filed the suit after over two million people signed a petition stating their displeasure with the French government’s inefficiency in reducing carbon emissions. 

The suit was filed under the premise that the government has failed to meet the requirements for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions according to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and other subsequent French laws. While this case is largely symbolic, it sets an incredible precedent. After ordering the government to pay one euro to the NGOs, the tribunal rendered influential decisions and findings. Most notably, the court found a link between the failure of the government to comply with its obligations and permanent ecological damage. They continued on to say that the French state should be held liable for this damage. This comes after decades of inaction in what Dr. Albert Cath, Assistant Professor in the Economics and Management Department at the American University of Paris, describes as, "the engagement of humanity."

According to the ruling, the French government had two months to respond to the decision. In those two months, the court said that it will spend its time investigating the extent of the damage done by the government’s inaction. 

This landmark case comes among a wave of similar suits around the world. One such case occurred in the Netherlands. The Urgenda Climate Case is revolutionary in nature. After nearly five years of legal disputes and appeals, in late 2019 the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower courts and found that the Dutch government must quickly and efficiently reduce its emissions, according to its obligations under human rights law. 

Over 800 Dutch citizens became co-plaintiffs in a suit against their government for not acting decisively enough to reverse the decades of damage that reckless emission policies have caused to the environment. However, the Dutch courts did not use the same legal framework as the French case. Instead the Urgenda case reveiled that the Supreme Court found the government is responsible for reducing their emissions not only because of their commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement or other environmental regulations, but because of their obligations under international human rights law as members of the European Court of Human Rights. To put it simply, this means that a reduction of emissions is a human right. Therefore, in the court’s view, the rights to a cleaner environment, non-polluted air, and safe drinking water are legally protected.

With so many cases around the world being litigated in the fight for substantive climate policy, the natural question that follows is what those policies look like. For Dr. Cath, climate policy should not be separate policy initiatives, it should simply be policy. He says, "If we treat the climate as a separate dossier, then we lose out." Climate change must be the most central issue in all legislation. It seems simple. But what is required of us is most certainly not. It requires a restructuring of our economies, our immigration policies, and our laws. The capitalist system that has led to the shrinking of the middle class, unlivable environmental conditions, and steadily rising sea levels, must evolve. 

Image credit: Creative Commons/alisdare1

Then there is responsibility. The most effective tool used by the largest polluters on the planet is the idea that it is the average citizen who is responsible. It shifts accountability away from them and leads the rest of us to believe that small acts like driving our car to work when there are little to no public transportation options available, our yearly flight across the country to see our family, or keeping our homes warm in the winter is why the climate is irreversibly changing. And, of course, it is incredibly important that we all do our part; we have a collective responsibility. But the burden should not rest on the shoulders of the working class exclusively. Not when, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, “71% of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity between 1988 and 2015 could be traced back to 100 fossil fuel producers and corporations.” 

The question of accountability is a multi-faceted one. Of course, it is imperative to hold the multinational corporations that pollute the planet to an unimaginable extent to a higher standard. That is a basic competency that society must develop. More than that is the extent to which citizens must hold their governments accountable. One person alone is not going to be able to force a multi-billion dollar corporation to reduce their environmental impact, the governments of the world must do that. A further aspect of accountability is of an individual nature. We have a moral obligation, one that is embedded in the fabric of our societal contract, to each other. Not only does this mean that we must hold each other accountable, but ourselves accountable as well.

Now, most people have more than likely become desensitized to descriptions of the effects of climate change. Most people are aware that there is a looming climate crisis. What is not often discussed, however, is that the crisis is already here. No longer can people dismiss this issue by saying we will worry about it later. The majority of climate scientists have reached a consensus that if global emissions are not significantly reduced in the next two decades, the damage will be irreversible. In 2018, the World Bank estimated that “three regions (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia) will generate 143 million more climate migrants by 2050.” 

That figure is not tallying total climate refugees, solely an increase in the existing number. As Dr. Cath pointed out, "If you look at the world map, where you see conflict, it's always around water scarcity or other issues that are directly related to climate change." Those conflicts are what produce the staggering number of refugees today and the system is already completely overwhelmed. Conditions will only continue to worsen once refugees begin fleeing cities that are uninhabitable because of pollution, or regions that no longer have the ability to produce sufficient food to sustain their population due to the warming climate.

The recent trend of activists and NGOs to use courts as a mechanism to hold governments responsible for their commitment to reducing emissions provides a new path forward. Now the state knows that its citizens have a basic human right to fresh air, clean water, and a safer planet. However, this is a double-edged sword. The first issue is that it should not be necessary. It is contradictory that democratic governments, like France and the Netherlands, must be sued by their own citizens in order for those citizens to be protected from the dangerous effects of climate change.

The second aspect of using a legal mechanism to progress the fight for meaningful policy solutions regarding the environment is that the law is inherently restrictive. A government must have already passed laws regarding human rights and sustainability in order to be found in violation of them. These laws do not exist in many countries around the world. Therefore, it is essential these legal mechanisms be used in complement to impactful public policy, focused on the climate crisis. 

Image Credit: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

Dr. Cath refers to the younger generation as the "climate generation". The reality is that this generation will be defined by its action, or inaction, towards the environment. The climate generation is the last that can even hope to make enough substantive change before the consequences of its predecessors' mismanagement of natural resources will be irreversible. 

For decades, activists have been told that their countries will gradually reduce their footprint, that it will take time, that these proposals are too revolutionary, that we must wait. The problem is that we are now out of time. It is clear that the same systems that have created the massive issue of climate change will not be the same ones to fix it.