Climate Change in Court

Last Friday, 17 January, a US court “reluctantly” quashed a climate lawsuit brought by 21 young people against the US government.  The judge determined that “the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government” — not the courts.  The arguments presented by the 21 young people in Juliana v. United States were judged by Circuit Judges Mary Murguia and Andrew Hurwitz, who found that the plaintiffs failed to establish standing to sue the US government.

This contrasts with last month’s ruling by the Dutch supreme court – the highest court in the Netherlands – which upheld an earlier ruling requiring the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% of 1990 levels by the end of next year.  The so-called Urgenda case was first brought six years ago by the Urgenda environment group in a bid to force the government to go well beyond EU targets.

So what place for the Courts in climate politics and policy?

The question about the appropriate role for the courts as an actor in climate politics is one of 15 questions that are debated by leading scholars in my new book Contemporary Debates in Climate Change: A Student Primer.  In Chapter 13 of the book, legal scholars Eloise Scotford, Marjan Peeters and Ellen Vos debate the question, ‘Is Legal Adjudication Essential for Enforcing Ambitious Climate Change Policies?’ 

In this Chapter, Scotford – professor of Environmental Law at UCL – argues that legal adjudication is inevitable and essential in enforcing ambitious climate change policies.  She claims that courts have an essential role in ensuring that climate policies are delivered in a fair and legally accountable way, in deciding inevitable legal disputes and in expressing symbolic community statements relating to climate change.  Peeters and Vos – professors of Environmental and EU Law at Maastricht University – contend that given the complexity and uncertainty in climate science, and the many interests affected by emissions reduction policies, courts are not equipped or entitled to replace political decision-making.  The level of emissions reduction in a specific country, and the pathways for achieving those reductions, are primarily political questions and not legal ones.

Other debates in the book include: whether climate change is the most important challenge of our time, whether climate change drives violent conflict, and whether carbon markets are essential for addressing climate change and whether climate change is a human rights violation.