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Climate activists turn to lawsuits to force action on global warming

Citizens and organizations have filed more than 1,300 cases worldwide since 1990.

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A young girl walks by a smoking chimney carrying a pan of coal on her head, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Fossil fuels in Pakistan: in 2015, a farmer sued the government for failing to implement its climate policy.Credit: Muhammed Muheisen/AP/Shutterstock

Citizens and organizations have filed more than 1,300 lawsuits related to climate change in at least 28 countries around the world, an analysis has found.

Of the 1,328 suits filed from 1990 to May 2019, more than three-quarters were in the United States (see ‘Climate in court’). But the report’s authors note that the share of lawsuits filed in low- and middle-income countries such as Pakistan and Uganda is on the rise. The vast majority of suits have been filed since 2006.

Source: J. Setzer and R. Byrnes. Global Trends in Climate Change Litigation: 2019 Snapshot (LSE, 2019)

The count includes cases against governments and businesses. It also includes suits registered with international courts and bodies such as the Court of Justice of the European Union and the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

Most of the legal battles are against governments, in attempts to bolster action against global warming. Many cases seek to strengthen climate policies — for instance, in a landmark 2015 case in the Netherlands, a court ruled in favour of citizens who said their government should accelerate emissions reductions.

Others seek to ensure that existing climate policies are properly enforced. In another 2015 case, a farmer in Pakistan sued the national government for failing to implement its 2012 climate policy. A court ruled in the farmer’s favour and directed government ministries to strengthen their endeavours to combat climate change.

A minority of lawsuits seek to undermine efforts against climate-change, the report found.

The analysis, conducted by policy researchers at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, notes that cases are increasingly drawing on ‘attribution science’, which aims to establish causal links between human-induced climate change and certain extreme weather events.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02121-6

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