From marches to strikes, climate advocates have been endlessly creative in making their voices heard. And now, litigation is on the rise as an effective tool to encourage countries, cities, and companies to take climate action now.
According to a recent report published by Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and the United Nations’ Environment Programme, the number of climate cases has more than doubled in the past five years, with litigation expected to increase. At the start of this year, there were 2,180 climate change cases underway across the globe between 2020 and 2022, with 1,522 in the U.S. alone. Cases have been filed in 55 countries, primarily the U.S., Britain, Europe, and Australia, but numbers are growing in Asia and the Global South as well.
The majority of cases are filed by climate-concerned plaintiffs, seeking legal rulings that are aligned with the goals of the global Paris Agreement — to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.
Although climate cases cover an increasingly far-ranging spread of legal ground, from human rights violations to zoning agreements and consumer protections, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law has found that the legal grounds for climate cases worldwide fall into about six general categories.
Climate rights — cases that claim that fundamental human rights protected by international laws or national constitutions have been violated by a lack of climate action.
Domestic enforcement of international climate change commitments — many countries and their governments have made commitments to international climate agreements (perhaps the most famous example being the Paris Accords!) via national legislation, regulation, and policy.
Keeping fossil fuels and carbon sinks in the ground — cases that challenge oil and gas projects and their respective permitting processes, which often fail to take climate implications into consideration.
Corporate responsibility and liability — lawsuits that hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate impacts, stating that the fuels produced are a public nuisance, or that the companies have failed to provide information about the potential harms of their product.
Greenwashing (and related climate disclosures) — cases that address misleading statements and advertising that make a company or a product seem more sustainable than it really is.
Failures of adaptation strategies (or lack thereof) — cases that sue governments and big companies for not taking the necessary steps to prepare for unintended climate consequences they’ve created.
In the U.S., any litigation that concerns a climate matter can be a climate case. Often brought to court by plaintiffs who are bearing the brunt of climate change, they demand outcomes like reducing carbon emissions, stronger climate mitigation strategies, or more equitable distribution of adaptation funding.
Although America has a history of taking disputes to the courts, climate cases especially took off during the Trump administration, when many critical environmental protections were repealed. Many of the climate cases brought to court in the U.S. fall under pre-existing federal environmental laws and legislation, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Many of the most notable previous and current U.S. climate cases center around fossil fuels — currently, more than two dozen US cities and states are involved in lawsuits alleging the fossil fuel industry knew about the dangers of burning coal, oil and gas, and actively hid that information from consumers and investors for decades.
Many recent cases have also been filed by young activists who are concerned for the quality of their lives and the fate of their planet, most recently Held v. State, which was filed by young people challenging a provision under the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which forbids state agencies from considering the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions or climate change effects in their environmental reviews. Arguing that they had the legal right to a “clean and healthful environment,” the court ruled in their favor after intensive scientific review.
Another huge win for a more renewable future was Suncor Energy Inc. v. Boulder, which resulted in a Supreme Court decision to reject ExxonMobil and Suncor’s petition to force three Colorado communities — who’d sued the fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change and local impacts they’d caused — into federal court. Fossil fuel companies have long fought to move these localized climate cases into federal court, where they’ve historically garnered rulings in their favor. With the rejection of the fuel companies’ appeal, the court set a new precedent for several ongoing cases against fossil fuel companies in other states, bettering their chances for a climate victory.
While it takes time to reap the tangible benefits of progress, according to last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment of climate change, climate litigation has played a key role in “the outcome and ambition of climate governance.”