Lawsuits against governments and oil companies are being used as tools to drive action
Youth engaged in a climate lawsuit against the federal government stand outside Montreal’s Palais de Justice on June 6. They have filed a class action on behalf of all young people in Quebec, alleging their right to a healthy environment is being violated. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)
As a band of young environmental activists crowded into a courtroom at Montreal’s Palais de justice earlier this month, Zy St-Pierre-Bourdelais admitted to being nervous.
“It’s the first time in my life I’m going to court,” he said.
No stranger to climate activism, the 20-year-old college student is part of a Quebec environmental group asking the courts to declare that the Canadian government is violating the rights of an entire generation by depriving them of a right to a healthy environment.
“The justice system is supposed to be based on laws, on fact, on science,” says St-Pierre-Bourdelais.
“Climate change is based on science. Politics are not.”
The case is unprecedented in Canada, but it’s part of a growing wave of climate litigation worldwide. It’s led by environmentalists and communities aiming to force cuts to carbon emissions, and win damages to pay for the costs of adapting to climate change.
“If we had taken [climate] action when I was a kid, things would be much different than they are right now,” says 29-year-old Catherine Gauthier, executive director of ENvironnement JEUnesse, the non-profit behind the Quebec lawsuit.
“Perhaps we wouldn’t need legal actions to make sure our rights and the lives of future generations would not be at stake right now.”
Catherine Gauthier sits on a picnic table in Île Saint-Bernard in Chateauguay, Que. She says she’s tired of the lack of real action around climate change. (Jean-Francois Benoit/CBC)
A global movement
More than 1,000 climate-change-related lawsuits are winding through courts around the world, according to a database compiled by the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School in New York.
The flurry of cases follows a groundbreaking decision in the Netherlands in 2015, in which the government was found to be disregarding its constitutional duty to protect citizens from climate change. The decision forced the Dutch government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 per cent compared to 1990 levels.
Similar legal actions are underway in Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, Colombia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
The courts are where politicians sometimes fear to tread. – Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist, Greenpeace, Canada
“The courts are where politicians sometimes fear to tread,” says Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada.
“Whether you’re looking at women’s rights, civil rights, equality in marriage, it was often the courts that pushed the politicians … the courts can blaze that path.”
Greenpeace Canada’s Keith Stewart is working with cities to explore climate litigation, including the City of Toronto, which announced in April that it will consider legal action against big emitters. (Jill English/CBC)
But it’s not only policy makers who are being held to account for lack of climate action.
In the U.S., the world’s most litigious country, lawsuits against fossil-fuel companies are also on the rise. MORE