Climate litigation: everything you need to know

Patrick Mcandrew

everything you need to know about climate litigation text beside judiciary iconography

Climate litigation has seen an ‘explosion’ in recent years, with the UN Environment Programme finding that instances of legal action related to the climate crisis have more than doubled within five years.

As the effects of the climate crisis grow increasingly severe, including the likelihood of exceeding 1.5C threshold within seven years, climate-conscious individuals are looking for any way to mitigate the global impact of the climate crisis, and an increasingly popular method of holding those responsible for or contributing to the climate crisis to account, is through the courts.

Climate litigation has shown that it can be one of the most effective ways to create demonstrable change and generate concrete action. Over 300 global climate change cases have seen favourable rulings, leading to the offender being obliged to take steps to rectify the situation. Last year, the IPCC even highlighted the role of climate lawsuits in “influencing the outcome and ambitions of climate governance.”

So, what is climate litigation and how is it creating an impact on the climate crisis? Find out all you need to know below:

What is climate litigation?

Climate litigation is the process of taking legal action against public bodies or private companies, like fossil fuel or cement giants, for the purposes of advancing action against the climate crisis and its impacts.

Through climate litigation cases, the movement allows courts to ensure both governments and corporations are accountable for their actions and forced to adhere to obligations they have agreed to in domestic and international pledges.

Climate litigation against governments

Climate change law across the world has developed massively over the last few decades, meaning governments have a range of responsibilities related to the climate crisis that are enshrined in law. Anybody can therefore bring a legal challenge against a governmental body if they have legal grounds to argue that those responsibilities are not being upheld.

Legal cases related to the climate crisis have been taken to courts all over the world, such as the Urgenda Climate Case against the Dutch Governments, the Paid to Pollute campaign in the UK, and Montana’s landmark climate ruling. They increasingly are seen a key tools to both enforce current climate legislation and enhance a government’s climate commitments.

Climate litigation against corporations

Governments are not the only bodies under scrutiny however, as litigation cases against corporations are increasingly being brought to courts across the world.

The justification for climate litigation taken against corporations for climate reasons is varied, but often focuses on either the failure of financial institutions to handle the risks of the climate crisis, or against GHG emitters and fossil fuel companies for causing climate-related harm.

The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment found that the filling on any sort of climate litigation, successful or not, reduced a firm’s value on average by -0.41%. In the result of an unfavourable ruling for the corporation, this increases to a loss in value of a firm to –1.50%.

Climate litigation cases in 2023

Early in the year, The Guardian published a piece that declared 2023 would be “watershed year for climate litigation.” Now looking back at the past year, it’s easy to see why the claim was made.

The number of climate litigation cases continued to rise for yet another year and we have now seen cases filed in seven new jurisdictions: Bulgaria, China, Finland, Romania, Russia, Thailand and Turkey.

How is Greenhouse involved in climate litigation?

The role of communications in climate litigation

The end goal of climate litigation is two-fold. The first, and most obvious is to achieve mitigation of the effects of the climate crisis through a successful ruling. The second, however, is to aid in the global climate movement and generate support for applicants. Ongoing climate litigation cases are vitally important, but this message needs to be communicated to as many people as possible. They shouldn’t be held in the dark.

Both traditional media outreach, as well as a focus on modern digital channels, are crucial to the continued growth of climate litigation as a global trend and to create long-lasting action to mitigate the climate crisis.

At an individual case level, it is vital that judges understand the importance of climate change cases and how much public support applicants have in proceedings. Particularly in cases where public interest is a major feature.

Communications also plays a powerful role in rallying together those affected by the impacts of climate change and high-profile figures. The Youth4ClimateJustice campaign harnessed the likes of Billie Eilish and Mark Ruffalo to support their campaign and propel its message to their millions of followers across the world.

Not only does this help close the gap of disparity, but it reaches a much wider audience than ordinary climate campaigns, inspiring millions to engage with and advocate for action.

The Youth4ClimateJustice
The Youth4ClimateJustice team at the European Court of Human Rights, including the six young people and the GLAN legal team.

On 27th September 2023, six Portuguese young people (Catarina, Cláudia, Martim, Mariana, Sofia and André) took a climate litigation case against 32 governments to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, arguing that their human rights are being infringed by continued inaction by governments to act on the climate crisis.

From a media perspective, Greenhouse delivered more than 4,000 individual articles on the case, including almost 300 broadcast pieces and over 60 in print. The team’s duties also included hosting several press conferences, distributing case materials and messaging, and arranging interviews with the youth Applicants and legal team.

On social media, the owned channels for Y4CJ generated over 500 thousand impressions and 20 thousand engagements. Our outreach on various platforms also generated valuable supporting posts from the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Amnesty International, Fridays for Future, Luisa Neubaeuer and Tori Tsui.

Uplift / Rosebank

On Monday 18th December, Uplift and Greenpeace announced that they are mounting separate legal challenges seeking to overturn the UK government’s decision to allow development of Rosebank, the UK’s largest untapped North Sea oilfield. They argue that the development is unlawful because it is not compatible with the government’s plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions and achieve a safe climate. It also ignores the impact of emissions from burning Rosebank’s oil, and it would damage a protected area of the North Sea and the diverse marine life it supports.

A protestor with Stop Rosebank leaflets on her back
A protestor at a climate march stands with Stop Rosebank leaflets on her back. Image: Alisdare Hickson

Greenhouse supported the announcement by sharing it widely with media across oil, energy, environment and business sectors to raise public awareness around the urgency of halting the development. The team delivered 400+ pieces of coverage in total, including BBC Radio 4, ITV Good Morning Britain, The Guardian, Bloomberg and more.