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Posted by on Apr 29, 2015 in Environment, Government, Law | 2 comments

Can We Sue the US Government Over Climate Change?

One issue that consistently seems to be of greater concern to the American public than to our leaders is climate change. The Obama Administration has made some significant (and in some ways unprecedented) progress, but there’s a lot of work to do before the rest of the government falls in line.

So what if we could sue them until they did something about it?

That’s the solution being floated right now in the Netherlands, where a pro-environmental group called the Urgenda Foundation is filing a class-action lawsuit against the Dutch government. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of some 866 citizens, alleges that their representatives have failed to adequately protect the country from the effects of climate change.

This case is remarkable for two reasons:

  1. It appears to be the very first climate change case in the world that uses human rights issues as its foundation.
  2. It is an attempt to circumvent the perpetual tangle of legislative red tape—one of the few consistent barriers to taking real action against climate change.

The ultimate goal of the lawsuit is to use the nation’s courts to force the Dutch government to make real, measurable progress in curtailing global warming. The plaintiffs seek a return to 1990 levels of carbon emissions by the year 2020. That’s a considerable drop, and is what scientists prescribe as the bare minimum necessary to prevent a two-degree rise in temperatures worldwide.

At first glance it seems like this kind of unprecedented legal action could take a considerable amount of time to find closure. The good news is that experts close to the case predict that a ruling will emerge sometime in the next six months.

Why the fast turnaround? The Urgenda Foundation has actually been building the case since 2012. Their intentions were spelled out in a letter addressed to the Dutch government; it threatened legal action if they refused to address global warming.

Beyond the Netherlands

Most interestingly, Urgenda is using this case to position themselves as thought leaders in the debate surrounding global warming; they hope that their actions will not just inspire change in the Netherlands, but also provoke similar legal efforts in other countries.

So this begs the question: could a similar legal maneuver gain traction in the United States?

As it turns out, they already have—sort of. Back in 2011, in a case filed against utility companies by several states, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts couldn’t regulate emissions. The assertion was that we already have regulatory bodies whose job it is to regulate such things: namely, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The problem? “Reigning in” the EPA has, quite literally, been priority #1 for our current, Republican-controlled Congress. So whatever hope we had on that front needs to be shunted elsewhere until we get more responsible leadership.

Nevertheless, our general failure to use the courts to make progress on climate change doesn’t seem to have deterred Urgenda and their plaintiffs. And can it work in reverse? Could a victory by Urgenda in the Netherlands reignite a similar effort over in the States? I, for one, hope so.

Politics and Progress

What we have in the end is further evidence of the kind of pointless, impotent gridlock endemic in the culture of American politics. We all need to be a little more collectively horrified that we’ve managed to politicize something unassailable like scientific consensus—of which, on the subject of climate change, there is plenty.

Nevertheless, there are signs that American citizens—as well as the private interests they represent—could be willing to take up the issues of climate change and general conservation on their own. Private Landowner Network has reported on ‘voluntary conservation’ efforts in areas like the southwestern United States to help local salmon populations recover, for example, and to encourage responsible land use. While this might be a few steps removed from the kind of sweeping efforts we need to make on climate change, it is nevertheless an important step toward using our resources responsibly without a government mandate.

But back in the world of legal arm-twisting: Professor Mary Wood (of the University of Oregon) confirmed that both the Dutch and American efforts on the climate change front stand on similar legal ground: namely, that the government is in control of its own atmospheric property and can therefore be held accountable for its condition. I’d say that’s a good start.

Image Credit: Rowan Gillette-Fussell (via Creative Commons License)

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