More climate change cases are coming

by Allison Milionis | June 21, 2021

Protest sign that reads Planet Over Profit

In May, climate activists and concerned citizens around the globe cheered when a Dutch court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell must reduce its carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels. This is significantly higher than the oil giant’s plan to lower its emissions by 20% by 2030. 

Ordering a private company to change its business practice on climate grounds is a first, surprising Shell and most likely giving other polluting corporations indigestion. The attorney representing the activist group Friends of the Earth in the case was quick to mark the win as the beginning of a new era. In a statement, Roger Cox said it was a “turning point in history and could have major consequences for other big polluters.”

The lawsuit was filed in April 2019 by seven activist groups on behalf of 17,200 Dutch citizens, claiming that Shell’s business model “endangers human rights and lives by posing a threat to the goals in the Paris Agreement”

Climate cases increasing around the world

The case against Shell is one of many currently rattling the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitters. After the Dutch suit was filed in 2019, hundreds of other cases followed. According to the 2017 United Nations Environment Programme Global Climate Litigation Report, there were 884 climate cases in 24 countries, 654 of those cases were in the U.S. 

By July 2020, the number of cases nearly doubled. At least 1,550 climate change cases were filed in 38 countries (39 counting the courts of the European Union), with approximately 1,200 of those filed in the U.S.

As of July 2020, the number of climate change cases around the world had nearly doubled since 2017. Of the 1,550 climate change cases, approximately 1,200 of those were in the U.S.

United Nations Environment Programme Global Climate Litigation Report

Climate rights cases pack a punch

The UNEP outlines six categories that define the current types of global climate cases: 1) climate rights; 2) domestic enforcement; 3) keeping fossil fuels in the ground; 4) corporate liability and responsibility; 5) failure to adapt and the impacts of adaptation; and 6) climate disclosures and greenwashing.

The Dutch lawsuit against Shell, as well as cases such as Juliana et al. v. United States, a case Crag has been involved in since 2017, fall under the “climate rights” category. These types of cases assert that a government or corporation that takes insufficient action to mitigate climate change is violating human rights, which is a fairly new construct.

According to a 2015 UNEP report titled, “Climate Change and Human Rights,” one of the first events to put a spotlight on this type of case was a petition submitted by the Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC) to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) requesting relief for human rights violations. 

The Inuit are an Indigenous people of the Arctic region of Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland whose livelihood and culture has been greatly impacted by warming temperatures from climate change. The petition submitted in 2005 by the ICC alleged that the U.S. had violated the Inuit people’s human rights by “failing to adopt adequate greenhouse gas emissions controls.” The Inuit stated that climate change “jeopardizes their right to life, physical integrity and security, their right to use and enjoy the lands they have traditionally used and occupied, to use and enjoy their personal property, and the inviolability of their home.” 

 Although the IACHR didn’t issue a decision, the petition attracted public attention and outrage. Suddenly, the world was seeing the direct effect of global warming on the Inuit people and natural ecosystems in the Arctic region. Climate change was no longer an abstract threat.

Photo by Robin Loznak, courtesy of Our Children’s Trust

Building momentum for the future

In recent years the number of climate rights cases have increased, more so than any global climate cases, and victories like the one against Dutch Royal Shell will only help build momentum. 

In the past 20 years, we’ve been a part of this movement by taking on industries like oil and gas in the Pacific Northwest that continue to engage in practices threatening ecosystems and the rights of people to thrive in their communities. It’s exciting to see how quickly the number of global climate cases have increased in the past couple years and the effect they’re having on people and industries.

Finally, greenhouse gas emitters are being held accountable and the courts are responding. Litigation is the most effective means of curtailing irresponsible and outdated modes of industry to ensure the best possible world for everyone and all ecosystems. It’s a responsibility and a thrill to be riding this wave of change. We look forward to another 20 years of positive changes and environmental victories for the PNW and beyond.


Allison Milionis

Allison Milionis

Allison Milionis is a writer and editor, and long-time supporter of Crag’s work.  She was born in the Pacific Northwest, left to experience life in a big city, and then returned 20 years later to put her roots back into the rich soil of her beloved PNW forests and fields.

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