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Climate Litigation Is on the Rise

Climate change litigation is on the rise around the world, with lawsuits brought in at least 28 countries, according to a policy report released earlier this year by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. More than three-quarters of that litigation was filed in the United States.

Litigation related to climate liability issues involves what the institute called “strategic cases … designed to press national governments to be more ambitious on climate or to enforce existing legislation,” as well as cases against entities that are “major emitters,” seeking damages.

The report focused on selected cases and developments from May 2018 to May 2019.

While the report did not have sufficient evidence of the impacts of climate change litigation beyond the courtroom, it found that these cases both aimed at increasing action against climate change and undermining current protections or supporting policy deregulation. In short, the lawsuits are a tool used to effect policy change, the report states.

The research looked at cases that raised issues of law or fact regarding climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts, as well as the science of climate change. The researchers drew on two databases for their analysis: the Climate Change Laws of the World database and the U.S. Climate Change Litigation database.

The report states that as of May 2019, 1,023 cases have been identified just in the United States. Other countries with multiple climate change cases recorded in these databases include:

  • Australia (94 cases)
  • European Union (55 cases)
  • New Zealand (17 cases)
  • Canada (16 cases)
  • Spain (13 cases)
  • India (10 cases)

Governments are the main defendant in these types of cases (more than 80 percent). Individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations comprise the plaintiffs.

In the United States, many climate change lawsuits challenge infrastructure projects and fossil fuel extraction. Plaintiffs have argued that “the sovereign’s responsibility to preserve the integrity of natural resources in its territory – the public trust doctrine – requires it to address climate change,” the report states.

One way to address this is to relate climate change as a human rights issue. The youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. U.S., heard on June 4, 2019, before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon, asserted that the government’s actions that cause climate change violate their rights under the constitution to life, liberty, and property. In Canada, a similar case, ENvironment JEUnesse v. Canadian government, claims that the government has failed to protect the fundamental rights of young people. Meanwhile, Future Generations v. Ministry of the Environment and Others in Colombia sought to combat deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, citing all beings’ fundamental rights (such as life, health, water, and food).

Other climate change lawsuits want to focus on existing laws and policies. as well as existing protective legislation. State governments, such as that of Rhode Island, and cities, such as San Francisco, Oakland, and New York City, also have filed climate change litigation, claiming fossil fuels are a public nuisance whose producers should be held accountable for loss and damage.

What’s Happening in San Antonio?

In San Antonio, rising temperatures could have a drastic effect on everyday life, scientists have warned. The city could experience “97 days a year with a heat index over 100 degrees and 59 days above 105 degrees by mid-century if no global action is taken to combat climate change,” the San Antonio Express-News reported based on a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In October, the San Antonio City Council approved the city’s first Climate Action and Adaption Plan, including strategies for reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and building resilience.

“Protection from floods, healthy air, green careers, more trees, a city prepared for the future — our Climate Action and Adaptation Plan sets out to accomplish each of these and more,” District 7 Councilwoman Ana E. Sandoval said in a news release. “Today’s vote affirms our commitment to protecting the people and places we hold dear while advancing our city.”