When a group of young Dutch citizens, part of the environmental organization Urgenda Foundation, sued their government for inaction on climate change, no one expected a win. The lawsuit, filed in 2013, alleged that the Dutch government was endangering the human rights of its citizens by failing to meet the minimum target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions to slow global warming. The ruling ordered the government to reduce by 25% carbon emissions by 2020, compared to 1990 levels. According to the Court, this goal was actually needed to protect human rights enshrined in the European Union legislation and national law. It was a decision that went down in history: the first case of victory by private citizens against a government in defense of the environment on the basis of human rights.
After the historic ruling in the Netherlands, many young people from various countries tried the same judicial approach. For example, another unexpected success was that of a group of 25 Colombian youths who in 2019 won a lawsuit against the government, accused of failing to protect the Amazon rainforest from deforestation. Across the world, in Pakistan, a 7-year-old girl, Rabab Ali, through her father, environmental lawyer Qazi Ali Athar, and on behalf of the Pakistani people, filed a climate change lawsuit against the federation and the government of Sindh. In this case, the government was accused of violating the fundamental rights of the younger generation to life, liberty, property, human dignity, information and equal protection under the law.
These sensational victories spread in three very different countries and continents, have become the basis of a legal movement promoted by young kids to force governments to step forward and save the planet before it is too late. This global trend has a name: climate justice.
The concept of climate justice is used to indicate the consequences that global warming has on human rights, underlining the fact that when we talk about climate change we are not only talking about nature and the environment but also about ethics and politics. This term, therefore, means the moral obligation to create a more fair and equal world, starting from the protection of human rights. In particular, the ones of those who suffer the most from the effects of climate change, even if they are not directly responsible for it.
Millennials and Gen Z have become the representatives of the climate justice movement, raising constitutional demands for recognition of the fundamental right to live in a healthy environment, and holding governments accountable for their contributions to the problem. The goal is to shed light on environmental sins and promote adequate and sustainable policies.
A few years ago, there were just a dozen climate lawsuits in total. However, today’s numbers are extremely different. According to research by the London School of Economics and Political Science, published in 2019, climate justice cases have been filed in at least 28 countries around the world. The analysis of cases recorded since 1990 shows that this kind of complaints were initially prevalent in the United States, but they have seen a gradual geographic expansion. After the Urgenda Foundation’s victory in the Netherlands, cases have increased in Europe, as well as in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific region. In addition, a very recent report from the United Nations Environment Program stated that the number of climate lawsuits filed in courts around the world has almost doubled between 2017 and 2020. To date, there are more than 1800 disputes.
Among the most recent, there is the one brought by Adetola Stephanie Onamade (age 23), Marina Tricks (age 20) and Jerry Amokwandoh (age 22); three British students who at the end of April called for a judicial review of government actions to reduce national carbon emissions. Although the UK has declared a climate emergency and set a net-zero emissions target by 2050, the three youngsters argue that the government does not have an adequate roadmap to match the scale of the crisis. The case alleges violations of human rights protected under British and international law, specifically rights to life and to private and family life.
Adetola, Marina and Jerry's families all come from parts of the world that are already experiencing devastating climate consequences, such as Africa, Latin American, and the Caribbean. They are supported by the British charity Plan B, which brought a successful legal action initiated in 2018 against the government’s plans to expand Heathrow Airport, as well as by a UK-based environmental and social justice campaign called Stop the Maangamizi.
In an interview with The Guardian, Marina Tricks said she felt she had a duty to hold her government accountable. “As young people, as future generations, we are being denied our right to life because of the government funnelling billions of dollars back into the same carbon economies that have caused this crisis. We’re in the epicentre of destruction. It’s almost about weaponising the privileges we have of being in the global north.”
From Fridays For Future, to climate justice; environmental activism is taking on increasingly sophisticated forms. Disputes regarding climate change continue to arise in all jurisdictions, and are increasingly seen as a useful tool for influencing behavior and politics around the topic of climate change. David Boyd, Professor of Environmental Law at the University of British Columbia and United Nations Special Rapporteur, commented: “Once dismissed as a novel perspective, the right to a healthy environment is now considered legally established around the world. This is a direct response to the fact that we are waking up to the magnitude of the global crisis.”
Written by Miriam Tagini