Send in the lawyers to win the fight against climate change | Artificial intelligence

law court

THE coalition for action is nothing if not broad. Civil society pushes grass-roots action and civil rights groups make the humanitarian arguments. Economists, financial institutions and big companies increasingly press the economic case for action, rightly seeing in global warming a threat to the world's prosperity. Even the Pope and the Pentagon have waded in.

So far, however, the responses of governments to curb emissions have been half-hearted at best. Now that inaction faces its sternest test – in the courts.


Legal action on climate is not new. In 2007, in the case Massachusetts vs EPA, the US Supreme Court ruled on behalf of 12 states and several cities that the Environmental Protection Agency was obliged by law to regulate emissions of CO2 from cars.

For a long time, this was an isolated success. But recent years have seen a rise in strategic lawsuits – ones that could have wide-ranging impacts, by setting a precedent or triggering policy changes. The cases largely involve people taking on governments for their failure to legislate to protect them against climate change, or people directly targeting fossil fuel companies, demanding either compensation for harm done or money to shield them from future damage (see “Meet the ‘climate kids' suing the US government over global warming”). Most suits are in the US: more than a dozen directly challenge the Trump administration's actions to deregulate emissions.

Some people, including judges presiding over climate cases, have questioned whether the courts are the right place for climate policy to be determined. To be sure, no one wants government by judicial fiat. But in democratic societies the law exists because someone has made it, and it is the right of every citizen to seek its protection. When all else fails, send in the lawyers.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Send in the climate lawyers”

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