The Dutch Lawsuit: Citizens Sue Government for Climate Neglect

by Ray Grigg

If record high temperatures, droughts, forest fires, drying rivers and other strange environmental events are making you nervous, and if you believe your government isn’t doing enough to address climate change, then sue. This is what 886 Dutch citizens did. And they won. Similar cases are now being prepared in Belgium, Norway and the Philippines.

In an unprecedented decision from a court in The Hague on June 23, 2015, a panel of judges ruled that the current action on climate change by the government of the Netherlands is insufficient to reasonably protect its citizens, and ordered an increase in its greenhouse gas reductions.

The group of victorious litigants, acting as a sustainability foundation called Urgenda, was composed of teachers, children, grandparents, entrepreneurs, celebrities, professors and even other judges. It was able to convince the court that by failing to introduce adequate mitigation measures — despite international agreements — the government was violating existing laws pertaining to human rights, environmental protection and tort.

Tort law, from the Latin word torquere, meaning “twisted or wrong”, is described as the universal duty to refrain from doing harm. It is “a body of rights, obligations and remedies” applied by courts through civil proceedings as “relief for persons who have suffered harm from the wrongful acts of others.” To be successful, a tort action must prove a legal duty to act, a negligence to act, and a consequent damage. The lawyers for the 886 plaintiffs were able to argue that their clients suffered injury or loss when their government’s duty and responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was sufficiently negligent.

In their ruling, the judges of the court found that, “The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts. Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.” As a penalty, the judges ruled that the government must reach its targeted GHG reductions of 40% below 1990 levels by 2020 instead of 2030, a 25% reduction in the next 5 years if the Netherlands is to make its appropriate contribution to keeping the global temperature rise under 2°C.

The precedent set by The Haig court could have international implications, particularly in Canada where its federal government has been woefully negligent in initiating GHG reductions, and in British Columbia where planned LNG development will make of any provincial emission targets unreachable. Significantly, the tort ruling explicitly denies a government the option of transferring responsibility elsewhere.

As bizarre weather — now irrefutably linked to climate change —causes injury or loss to many Canadians through unusual events ranging from floods and fires to storms and droughts, a tort case could be supported by the contention that this country’s governments are legally culpable through their failure to undertake preventable measures in a timely and appropriate manner, and that such negligence implicates them in the doing of demonstrable harm.

The Dutch lawsuit sends a loud signal that people have legal recourse to protect themselves and they don’t have to be the victims of wanton negligence, even if this negligence is by their own governments.