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Will Justice rescue the planet ?

Climate litigation for climate justice

Rebecca Thissen Rebecca Thissen
30 September 2021
Will Justice rescue the planet ?

A CNCD-11.11.11’s study in the collection Point Sud #21, September 2021.

FOREWORD

From climate justice to climate litigation

We often hear talk of “climate justice” when discussing the rise of climate litigation and the many “climate cases” throughout the world. While “climate litigation” does make sense, as the judicial system is being used to accelerate climate action, the term needs to be distinguished from “climate justice”, which predates it. The two are closely linked, however. The concept of climate justice, in use since the 1990s, points to the existence of a stark imbalance: on the one hand, the communities and individuals least responsible for global warming are those most severely affected by its consequences, while on the other, those chiefly responsible –the companies that emit vast quantities of greenhouse gases, and states– fail to meet their responsibilities, and sometimes, even perpetuate the current climate trend.

This injustice, intrinsic to the climate crisis, is now being vigorously exposed in courts and tribunals. In this context, there is a widespread desire to “humanise” the debate. Why? Because the current and future victims of climate change, in both the global North and the global South, are frequently kept invisible, while all too often those responsible wash their hands of their obligations and historic responsibilities. So as the concept of climate justice is brought into the judicial arena, climate goals –from being mere target percentages for greenhouse gas reduction– become obligations, based on a duty of care and due diligence towards all citizens. A “carbon budget” is no longer understood just as something to be divided up between different countries: now it is also regarded as a duty owed to future generations, for whom the world may not be viable if global emissions do not soon peak and fall. In short, the climate imbalance is no longer seen as a distant, future threat – now it is a current, local problem that has already caused many casualties, starting with those most vulnerable. That the climate crisis is global and interconnected is becoming increasingly clear, reminding us forcibly that we are all in the same boat, although we do not have the same rank. To avoid being shipwrecked, therefore, we need to join forces and take decisive action.

While climate litigation enables us to protect all citizens more effectively from the consequences of climate change, where it comes into its own is in recognising climate justice. Judges are taking the issues of responsibility and fault, reparation and damage, and giving them concrete form, all through the prism of an unprecedented emergency: the climate imbalance on our planet. This constantly evolving body of case law heralds a revolution: a world in which from now on those responsible, whether politicians or private individuals, must fear the potential consequences of their lack of climate ambition or their harmful environmental practices.