Activists are not suing governments for damages anymore but rather making a case for climate action by presenting it as a violation of rights.
Kids as young as nine are suing governments for not addressing climate change and they're winning. The future is at stake for the younger generation and they're wasting no time holding their government accountable. A 25-year-old climate activist, Luisa Neubauer, took the German government to court and recently won a case. On April 29, the country's Supreme Court declared some of the provisions in the 2019 climate change act "unconstitutional" and "incompatible with fundamental rights." The court stated that the plan didn't really specify how the government planned to reduce emissions and put the burden for future climate action on young people. The court ordered the German government to come up with new provisions that "specify in greater detail how the reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions" by the end of next year, reported CNN.
The core idea in most cases is that the government is impeding on the fundamental rights of the future generation by not acting now. "It was hard to digest, because it was so, so unexpected," said Neubauer. She played down the fact that it was her name on the case — Neubauer et al. versus Germany. She said she was just one of many people involved in the fight against the German government. Neubauer believes the win is significant and could pave way for more similar judgments. "This case changes everything," said Neubauer. "It's not nice to have climate action, it's our fundamental right that the government protects us from the climate crisis," she added. Neubauer argued that governments were focused on setting targets instead of doing climate action that could help meet those targets.
Neubauer and many others listed on the cases argued in court that the current German government didn't have a concrete plan to reduce emissions beyond 2030 which would significantly damage their quality of life in the future. The 2019 law called for a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 from 1990 levels. They argued that the target wasn't enough to meet Germany's obligations under the Paris accord.
The climate change cases being ruled against the various governments are giving the younger generation more impetus, with many more cases being filed across various countries. Activists are now channeling their energy into climate lawsuits. The number of climate litigation cases filed around the world almost doubled between 2017 and 2020, according to a January report released by the United Nations Environment Programme. Peter Altmaier, the German minister for energy and the economy said the court's ruling was "significant" and a "historic decision for climate and the rights of young people." The core argument in all these cases states that future generations have a right to live in a world that is not destroyed by the climate crisis.
Months earlier, a court in Paris ruled that France was legally responsible for failing to meet emission-cutting targets. Last October, a case from Portugal representing six young people was fast-tracked at the European Court of Human Rights. The case representing six Portuguese young people took 33 governments to the European Court of Human Rights citing their failure to act on the climate crisis. The six included those aged between nine and 22. According to Mark Clarke, a partner at the international law firm White & Case, the way cases are being framed at court has resulted in more significant wins in court. "The most significant trend is the pivot away from claims for damages as a result of the physical impacts of climate change, towards rights-based claims," said Clarke.
Marina Tricks, one of three British students suing the UK government over its climate actions, stated that governments had all the facts and estimations and yet continues to ignore reality. "The UN has put out estimates that there could be 200 million, and up to 1 billion, [climate] migrants by 2050, and we know these facts, yet we're still on the same trajectory," said Tricks said. "It's the fact that the government is seeing these facts — because I know that if I'm seeing them, they're definitely seeing them — so they have the full knowledge, they have the means, they have the solutions, yet they're doing nothing."