On November 13, 2017, a lawsuit filed in Germany was officially approved to proceed—having been previously rejected by the courts last year—setting the stage for a potential landmark decision related to the planet’s changing climate. For the first time, an individual may have the opportunity to sue a single company for damages related to its emissions; holding the company financially accountable for contributing to our warming planet. Making this lawsuit even more unique is the fact that the German company in question is being sued by a private citizen from a different country—a country in which the company has no physical presence. 

The lawsuit has been filed by Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a farmer from Huaraz, Peru, a city of approximately 100,000 people nestled against the Cordillera Blanca mountains. Perched above the city, Lake Palcacocha is rising to a dangerous level from the rapidly melting glaciers located nearby—glaciers Lliuya believes are melting because of global warming. Should the lake breach, the residents of Huaraz lay directly in the path of the immense flooding. 

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In search of funding for a prevention to this potential flooding, Lliuya is suing German utility company RWE for damages related to its estimated contribution to the warming planet. In a study conducted to quantify these emissions, it was determined that RWE contributed 0.5% of the world’s historical industrial emissions. Lliuya’s suit is seeking damages of $20,000, which amounts to roughly 0.5% of the estimated cost of the flood prevention construction. Despite RWE having no presence in Peru, this lawsuit could hold them accountable for the impact of their overall global emissions. 

Were this lawsuit to end in favour of Lliuya, the long-term potential for holding individual companies accountable for their contributions to climate change could be varied and quite impactful. This puts immense power in the hands of the public, and serves to further incentivize corporations to reduce their emissions. In theory, every company could have a value attached to their annual emissions, laying out their financial responsibility to the world. No longer must we sit and wait for proactive action from the government; our legal systems could pick up the slack.

For example, in the United States, a group of children have sued the federal government over its lack of action in the prevention of climate change. The caseJuliana v. United States—was initiated by Dr. James Hansen and 21 youths ranging in age from 9 to 20 years old. The crux of this case, originally filed against Barack Obama’s administration, is the assertion that the government should be responsible for preventing the effects of climate change that will be felt by future generations.

The idea is that governments should be more proactive in fighting climate change, and failure to do so represents negligence and denies the plaintiffs their right to life and liberty. 

Juliana v. United States is notable for several reasons. Beyond the ages of the plaintiffs, and the fact that they are essentially suing a sitting president, this case could potentially force the Supreme Court to officially rule on the legitimacy of climate change itself.

This will truly be a landmark decision with a myriad of legal ramifications for the manner in which we fight against climate change.

A United Nations study released earlier this year cited nearly 900 climate-related lawsuits around the world—654 of which were filed in the United States. The study listed a wide range of trends in climate change litigation.

Among those listed trends were holding governments to their legislative and policy commitments; applying the public trust doctrine to climate change; climate refugees; and establishing liability for failure to adapt and the impacts of adaptation.

The high number of pending lawsuits, and the variance in trends, suggest that proponents of battling climate change see the legal system as a powerful ally. 

The global crusade against the changing climate, and those deemed responsible for this change, will occur in numerous arenas. 

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The increase in lawsuits worldwide showcases a unique approach to how we can identify and hold accountable those that contribute to the problem. This approach can be applied to a variety of industries, ranging from energy to agriculture—even governments. It represents a real opportunity for individuals to force change; and it is surely something to pay close attention to.

 

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