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id21 viewpoint - Litigating for climate justice

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Peter Roderick
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Litigation (legal action) for justice over climate change is an immense global issue which is likely to increase in the future. The complexities of legal systems are a disadvantage for poor communities, who often suffer the most serious impacts of climate change. Is it worth these people going to court over climate change?To
date, there are about 17 different climate legal initiatives underway, in both
developed and developing countries. The most recent cases have involved human
rights issues, addressing both causes of climate change and the impacts. Judgments
have started to come through; verdicts so far are going both ways.
communities face particular difficulties in taking legal action over climate
Legal proceedings involve language, rules and
procedures that are designed, applied and affordable by rich and privileged elites.

Even when judges find in favour of poor
communities, big business can ignore the decision.
flaring in Nigeria has contributed more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than all other
African sources combined, according to the World Bank. On 14th November 2005, the Federal High Court of
Nigeria found in favour of Mr Jonah Gbemre in a case put forward on behalf of
himself and the Iwherekan community. Gas flaring near the community - which also
disperses toxic chemicals over local residents and into the environment - was
determined to be a “gross violation” of the constitutionally-guaranteed rights.
Shell Nigeria and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation were ordered to
stop gas flaring at Iwherekan immediately. After 32 days, this order had not
been obeyed; contempt of court proceedings were started on 16th December 2005. Several
other gas flaring cases brought by Niger Delta communities are pending.
7th December 2005, 63 Inuit people in the US and Canada submitted a petition to
the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They wanted relief from
violations of their human rights - including the rights to retain their
culture, life, food and health - resulting from global warming caused by US GHG
emissions. The Arctic is rapidly warming, which affects Inuit life by
disrupting food supplies and transport. Yet still the USA
fails to reduce its emissions and support international efforts to tackle climate
are three justifications for enforcing laws to combat climate change:
It increases pressure for necessary global
reductions in GHG emissions. It is vital that the lack of government leadership
is met with courage and self-respect by victims.
It offers the prospect of compensation for
climate change damage (although no damages case has yet been brought). This is not
a substitute for rational policies, but the current international mechanism for
compensation is grossly inadequate.
It is better that disputes are settled
rationally and peacefully, rather than leading to further conflicts between
countries and communities and businesses.
should be encouraged by the December 2005 government agreement in Montreal to
start talks about further emission reductions after 2012. However, waiting for
another six years to start taking action is not an option.