Climate Change Lawsuits Surge as Global Temperatures Hurtle Towards Levels Far Above 1.5°C
As the effects of climate change hit home for people and communities around the world, lawsuits are becoming a central tool in the fight for climate justice.

The number of climate cases taken to court has more than doubled in the last five years, as people and communities turn to the legal system to hold governments and corporations accountable for their inaction on climate change, according to a new Global Climate Litigation Report, published Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

The latest data shows that over 2,300 climate-related legal cases have been filed since UNEP began tracking climate litigation in 2017.

“The challenge with climate litigation is that it needs to target each country individually,” said Maria Antonia Tigre, a senior fellow in climate litigation at Columbia’s Sabin Center, at a joint press briefing Tuesday, just ahead of the report’s release. “Lots of cases have to be filed to actually move the needle.”

The new UNEP report collates and analyzes data on some 2180 cases filed to end 2022, with Sabin Center’s online data base recording nearly 200 more cases filed since the start of 2023.

Current trajectory has temperature rising 2.7°C -2.8°C by 2100

That means that lawsuits are now becoming a central tool in the fight for climate justice as the world catapults above the 1.5°C global heating threshold set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement. The current climate emissions trajectory leaves the planet set to exceed pre-industrial temperatures by 2.7°C by 2100, according to a 2021 UN analysis of climate emissions and mitigation commitments.

The weak pledges made ahead of the 2022 COP27 meeting led to even more gloomy projections of a 2.8°C temperature rise by the end of the century.

As governments and corporations fail to adjust course on greenhouse gas emissions that may alter the global climate for generations, people are resorting to litigation to try to claw back control of their future.

“There is a distressingly growing gap between the level of greenhouse gas reductions the world needs to achieve in order to meet its temperature targets, and the actions that governments are actually taking to lower emissions,” said Michael Gerrard, the founder and director of the Sabin Center. “This inevitably will lead more people to resort to the courts.”

The United States continues to dominate global climate change case numbers.

The largest number of climate cases have been filed in the United States, which accounts for around 70% of the global total. Courts in Australia, the United Kingdom, European Union and the United Kingdom round out the top five climate litigators.

Even so, nearly 20% of cases have been filed in developing countries, the report said. For the first time, two developing countries – Mexico and Brazil – are in the top ten countries facing climate litigation.

The report comes a day ahead of the one-year anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly vote to recognize access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right – a decision viewed as historic for explicitly linking human rights to climate change.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, declared that the resolution sent a message that “nobody can take nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate away from us – at least, not without a fight”.

A year of heatwaves, drought, floods and record temperatures has repeatedly challenged the ambitions set out in the non-binding resolution, pushing people, environments and ecosystems around the world to their limits.

As the current El Niño event develops over the coming months, global-mean air temperature are already expected to rise above pre-industrial levels by more than 1.5°C for extended periods. Average temperatures across the earth’s terrestial areas, which are typically warmer than the seas, have also risen above the threshold already.

“The climate crisis is getting worse, not better,” said Patricia Kameri-Mbote, who leads UNEP’s legal division. “People are increasingly turning to the courts for answers.”

A new field of climate law

The disruptive activities of climate activists around the world are increasingly being met with criminal charges – even as lawsuits over official climate inaction proliferate.

Lawsuits arguing that the right to a healthy and sustainable environment is inherent to existing national constitutional law and international human rights law is the most common category of litigation, the report said.

Plaintiffs also sued governments for not abiding by emissions targets set out in international agreements like the Paris Accords. They have challenged the construction of new fossil fuel extraction facilities in the courts, and attacked greenwashing in corporate marketing.

The growing number of cases and legal strategies for climate litigation is increasingly defining a new field of law, UN experts said.

“These cases are being seen across the world,” said Andy Raine, head of environmental law at UNEP. “[Precedents] have influence and impact that don’t always just stay within national borders.”

Youth climate activists have been a driving force in climate litigation, filing 34 cases on behalf of children, teens, and young adults.

Legal ‘backlash’ cases proliferate

The report also warned, however, of a growing number of legal “backlash” cases against climate activists and affected communities as corporations try to protect their fossil fuel assets. Criminal and civil cases that target the disruptive actions of climate activists are also increasing, Tigre said.

The legal costs associated with major climate litigation, however, also represent a high bar of entry that prevents many of the world’s most vulnerable from using it as an avenue for climate justice, the report said.

“Many cases are still not brought to the forefront as financial challenges, intimidation, lack of know-how and other barriers remain in place,” the report said. “These barriers are especially harmful for vulnerable groups including Indigenous Peoples, women and those from a lower socioeconomic status, the majority of whom are women.”

International courts yet to weigh in

The International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the responsibilities of states to respond to climate change to protect present and future generations is pending.

Climate cases are also working their way through international courts – although the process is slow and painstaking. In March, the UN General Assembly requested an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the obligations of states to respond to climate change. The resolution also invited the court to give an opinion on these obligations with respect to future generations.

“The advantage of the ICJ advisory opinion is that we would hopefully have the highest court in the world clarifying what the legal obligations of states are,” said Tigre. “A big challenge often facing individuals in these systemic cases against governments will be surpassed … domestic courts will likely follow that interpretation.”

“Obviously, you won’t solve any problem in and of itself, because it’s an advisory opinion, but it would help for future litigation and hopefully also lead to certain changes from governments without the need for further litigation, as well,” Tigre added.

Criminal charges have also been sought in international courts. In 2021, a communication was filed with the International Criminal Court (ICC) requesting that former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro be investigated for crimes against humanity for his role in deforestation activities in the Amazon rainforest.

The communication argued that Bolsonaro actively promoted and facilitated attacks on the Amazon and the people who depend on it, which constitutes “a clear and extant threat to humanity itself”. If the ICC pursues the case, it would be the first time that environmental and climate harm formed the basis for charges of crimes against humanity.

Image Credits: Markus Spiske/ Unsplash, CC.

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