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Canadian kids sue government over climate change

Lawsuit alleges that the federal government has violated citizens’ rights by promoting and enabling fossil-fuel development.

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Global Climate Strike, Vancouver, Canada, 27 September 2019.

Children and young people in Canada have participated in a series of recent protests calling for action on climate change. Credit: Michael Wheatley/Alamy

A group of children and young adults filed a lawsuit on 25 October alleging that the Canadian government has violated their constitutional rights by promoting and enabling fossil-fuel development in spite of acknowledged risks from global warming.

Fifteen people aged between 10 and 19 filed the lawsuit in federal court, arguing that climate change will impinge on their right to “life, liberty and security”. The lawsuit also argues that climate change will interfere with basic equality rights, given that the most severe effects of climate change will be borne by future generations.

“Basically, what we’re arguing is that the courts must hold this generation to account for harms that are being done to the next,” says Chris Tollefson, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and a specialist in environmental law at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Ira Reinhart-Smith, a 15-year-old plaintiff from Caledonia, Canada, says that he got involved with climate activism — including the Fridays for Future school-strike movement — last year. “This lawsuit is helping me express my anger and my fear,” he says. “My generation and generations to come are going to be exposed to things that the world has never been exposed to before.”

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal challenges aiming to force governments around the world to act on climate change. It comes just days after an election in which Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau — whose administration has acted more aggressively on climate change than his predecessors — eked out a win, although his Liberal Party lost its majority in parliament.

Test case

Because there is no explicit right to a healthy environment under the Canadian constitution, the case hinges on an untested legal theory: that the adverse impacts of global warming will impinge on other fundamental rights, says Nathalie Chalifour, co-director of the Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability at the University of Ottawa. Given the inevitable impacts of climate change on lives, property and culture, she says, the argument is sound.

“I believe this case really does have legs,” Chalifour says. If the plaintiffs prevail, the lawsuit could give Trudeau political cover to act more aggressively to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, she adds.

Tollefson says the legal team is hoping that the Trudeau administration will come together with the plaintiffs and concede many of the factual issues in the case, including the underlying climate science. But Tollefson says the plaintiffs also plan to argue that a simple ruling ordering the government to take action is not enough. Instead, he says, they will ask the courts to retain control and oversee the matter until the government has developed and implemented an appropriate climate policy.

“Where we see governments drag their feet, it’s entirely appropriate for the courts to stay involved,” Tollefson says.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-03253-5

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