The surge of climate litigation around the world has influenced the way countries craft policy on global warming, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Climate-related lawsuits from individuals and advocates are multiplying, and in some cases have “influenced the outcome and ambition of climate governance,” according to the United Nations-backed report, released Monday. The bulk of the report’s assessment focuses on the policy and technology that could help stem a bleak trajectory of more than 3°C warming—if the world acts on them in time.
This marks the first time the IPCC has recognized the growing role of litigation “in driving some countries and companies toward greater action on climate change,” according to Michael Gerrard, head of Columbia University’s Sabin Center on Climate Change.
“The IPCC is saying that we need to deploy all the tools in the toolbox, and litigation has definitely become one of them,” he said.
Hundreds of lawsuits have been waged globally for more than a decade, largely targeting government action on emission reductions and industry representations of fossil fuel use. Litigation strategy varies widely across judicial systems, but much of the recent litigation outside of the U.S. rests on human rights-based claims for a stable climate and environment.
“The extent of the treatment of [litigation] as a phenomenon—an entire subsection of a chapter—in this installment of the Sixth Assessment is unprecedented,” according to climate law expert and Loyola University New Orleans professor Karen Sokol.
The latest IPCC report goes “significantly further” than previous reports in stating the impact of climate litigation, said Joana Setzer, a Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment research fellow and IPCC contributing author.
Climate change in the courtroom featured less prominently in the last version of the report, released in February. U.N. scientists have released three assessments since August 2021.
“Climate-related litigation in some regions” could “accelerate commitment and follow-through” on climate action, according to the second session of the Sixth Assessment report, focused on adaptation.
Chapter 13 of the report focuses on the “increasing academic agreement that climate litigation has become a powerful force in climate governance,” referencing cases like Urgenda v Netherlands, the landmark case that compelled the Dutch government to do more to stem emissions.
Given the rate of growth and influx of new data on climate cases, it makes sense that this IPCC report would spend some time on this type of litigation, Sokol said.
“It has thus become clear that issues about responsibility for the climate crisis and its impacts in the courts, in legal arguments, and in legal opinions will increasingly become the norm, rather than the exception,” she said.
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