It was a simple but powerful message – while negotiators struck deals to defer action, Pacific island nations like Tuvalu are drowning in rising seas, and could be swallowed whole as soon as this century ends.
But the three activists — Adetola Stephanie Onamade, Marina Tricks and Jerry Amokwandoh, all in their 20s — and charity Plan B Earth are trying to challenge the whole concept. Activists have Nigerian, Trinidadian, Mexican, and Ghanaian heritage, respectively, and believe that historical emitters have a duty to care for people, like their relatives, in the Global South.
“[The court] She rejected the idea that our family life includes our family around the world, or our family back home,” Amokwondo told CNN. And they used to say that your family could be confined to the British Isles only. It is a colonial mentality.”
Al Hail said they are turning in particular to pipeline fossil fuel projects, including a proposed coal mine in northwest England, which is under review, and oil exploration in the North Sea.
“We are ultimately being decimated by the system, by this government, for its funding of the climate crisis,” Trix said.
“It actively finances extractive projects that pollute our land, water, and air.”
Johnson’s offices did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment on the case and the claims. The Treasury directed CNN to Kwarteng’s office, which said, “We do not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.”
This type of litigation is something the UK government, and many people around the world, will have to get used to. In a separate case, a number of activists backed by a group called Paid to Pollute will take the Johnson administration to the Supreme Court on December 8 to prevent state money from flowing into new fossil fuel projects. The group refers to the billions of pounds the UK government has spent on oil and gas subsidies since the Paris Agreement in 2015, which committed the world to trying to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, but preferably 1.5.
Globally, the number of legal cases related to climate change has more than doubled since 2015, according to the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environmental Research at the London School of Economics. Just over 800 cases were filed between 1986 and 2014, but more than 1,000 cases have been filed since the year the Paris Agreement was signed, according to its last report published in July.
“We see a lot of groups using the courts to try to advance climate action where there may be frustrations with political processes,” said Kathryn Higham, coordinator of the Global Climate Change Laws Program at the Grantham Research Institute.
“We see plaintiffs using the courts to try to push climate action, but also as a tool to push the boundaries of political debate,” she said.
This ruling can be truly transformative. It would be very difficult for a company like Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% without converting a significant amount of its oil to renewable or low-emissions energy sources.
Higham says the decision could pave the way for similar court rulings against two other principals. A similar case against French oil giant Total is being heard in France.
“One way in which the Shell case differs from others is that instead of looking at compensation, the court issued a forward-looking injunction about what Shell should do — a declaration that what Shell is currently doing is insufficient,” she said.
“While we cannot say how the other cases, such as the case against Total, will eventually play out, there is a good chance that these cases will lead to similar rulings against many other companies, or at least that there will be further action on the basis that filed by the Shell case.”
Science finally gets its word in court
Today, courts increasingly consider science in their climate rulings, according to Bill Hare, a senior scientist and executive director of the Center for Climate Research and Climate Analytics.
“Courts are looking at what the science says, they have given more weight to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” Hare said, referring to the United Nations Climatology Report published every six to seven years. . The latest was published in August amid a wave of extreme weather events across the northern hemisphere.
“There is still a huge gap between what countries make in terms of emissions pledges and what is needed, as far as the IPCC knows, so that’s another dimension of this that the courts will consider,” Hare said.
“I think this is something that will be a huge test for governments. We’ve already seen that in the past 12 to 24 months and it can only grow.”
Climate scientists are increasingly being invited to share their expertise in court, and as their ability to make clear links between countries and companies’ emissions and their impacts improves – such as heat waves or wildfires – large emissions have less room to hide. This happens even in cross-border situations.
One example is a case brought by an Austrian activist group called AllRise against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The group is petitioning the International Criminal Court to hear the case, arguing that Bolsonaro’s policies that allowed rapid deforestation of the Amazon released emissions that contributed to climate change, causing real deaths and losses and damage to people’s livelihoods.
Scientists were able to estimate the amount of carbon dioxide and methane emitted by these policies and found that they represent about 1% of global greenhouse gases each year. This is the same as the UK’s total emissions, they wrote in an expert report on the issue.
They also found that the amount emitted would lead to more than 180,000 heat-related deaths globally before 2100. That’s even if global emissions are drastically reduced.
“Climate change is killing people. And Bolsonaro’s policy is not only increasing emissions, but increasing the intensity of heat waves, and this affects people’s lives all over the world and, of course, locally, is destroying livelihoods,” said Frederic Otto. Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, who was among the scholars who made the written presentation of the case.
“This kind of environmental destruction, at this level, should be considered a crime against humanity because it destroys livelihoods on a massive scale.”
The Bolsonaro administration did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Otto also leads the World Weather Attribution Project, one of a group of scientists who use modeling and data analysis to estimate how much climate change is contributing to an extreme weather event.
This type of science is useful in tort law cases, when a court needs to assess a civil wrong that has caused loss or damage.
“I think it’s also important in Bolsonaro’s example, because you can’t hide behind generics anymore,” Otto said. “The generation of the fuzzy future will not suffer. The tangible people here are the ones who lose their livelihood and the tangible money that someone has to pay.”
Bolsonaro’s case is truly unique in that litigation internationally on climate issues is difficult. There is no dedicated international court for climate crimes, for example, and even the International Criminal Court has its limits. It can be constrained by its own power politics and some countries have refused to cooperate in cases implicating it.
ClientEarth, a non-profit organization that provides legal services and advice on climate issues, has had several successes, including the 2020 case that led to Poland halting construction of a coal plant.
The group’s attorney, Sophie Marjanac, told CNN that COP26’s failure to devise a plan to pay compensation for climate impacts was “nothing short of treason.”
“Climate change is inherently uneven: its effects – such as droughts, heat waves, floods and rising seas – are more felt in those countries that are least responsible. This is clearly a human rights issue,” she said.
“When governments don’t take action, litigation will increasingly be used to hold them accountable.”