Citizen-led legal action on climate change peaks

Aimee-lee Abraham

New study finds a ‘proliferation’ of climate litigation cases filed against governments by grassroots individuals and communities worldwide. Is there a growing global hunger for accountability and resolution?

A study has revealed that governments around the world are facing unprecedented legal pressure – prompted by grassroots communities and individuals – to better mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Citizens, from geographically vulnerable islanders to US teenagers concerned about wildfires, are seeking resolution in court, and uniting to demand action.

Key cases are being led not only by international organisations such as Greenpeace – which is currently investigating links between fuel companies operating in the Philippines and the increase of tropical storms in the region – but also by at-risk individuals. These include a Peruvian farmer claimant whose land is at risk of flooding from melting glaciers, and a Pakistani farmer who is suing his government over its ‘failure to adapt’ to rising temperatures.

Legal action is beginning to spring up from all corners of the world

“It’s patently clear we need more concrete action on climate change, including addressing the root causes and helping communities adapt to the consequences,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the UN Environment Program. “The science can stand up in a court of law, and governments need to make sure their responses to the problem do too.”

The results should come as no surprise to officials in the US where cases outnumber the rest of the world threefold, but may be greeted with surprise elsewhere. Co-published by the UN Environment Programme and Columbia Law School, the report reveals that the number of countries with active cases of this kind has tripled since 2014. Australia, with 80 cases, and the UK, with 49, are the next largest national sources of climate litigation. But, notes the report, legal action is beginning to spring up from all corners of the world.

Judicial decisions around the world show that many courts have the authority, and the willingness, to hold governments to account for climate change

Around 177 countries recognise the right of citizens to a clean and healthy environment, and courts are increasingly being asked to define the implications of this right in the age of climate change. With some exceptions, the report finds that governments are almost always the defendants in climate change cases.

“Judicial decisions around the world show that many courts have the authority, and the willingness, to hold governments to account for climate change,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.


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Featured image: a woman tills her land in Cusco, Peru. Credit: Percy Ramírez Medina

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