How To Support Climate Legal Action

Even if you’re not a lawyer, you can support the organizations fighting the climate battle in court.

A Dutch court rendering the verdict in the landmark 2015 Urgenda case (with 900 co-plaintiffs), which was the first time a judge legally required a national government to take action against climate change.

After decades of environmental legal action, 2021 has seemed like a breakthrough year for those trying to battle the climate crisis via litigation. A Dutch court ordered Shell to dramatically slash its CO2 emissions (45% by 2030). A German Court ruled that Germany’s climate protection efforts are falling short, demanding changes to climate laws by 2022. And a U.S. federal judge reversed a decision by the Trump and Biden administrations to approve an oil and gas drilling plan in the Alaskan Arctic.

There are thousands of climate-related legal cases underway around the world, in all types of courts and jurisdictions, as documented in these climate litigation databases. And they’re increasingly ambitious, going after corporations and governments and broadening their legal claims to include things like human right violations and putting future generations at risk.

There are also many more local legal actions that don’t make big news… e.g. helping defend and protect climate activists on the ground, or pushing back on specific local climate-related developments and issues.

Climate litigation is working, especially in conjunction with other approaches, like PR, lobbying, activism, and financial market pressure. As the world’s awareness of the climate crisis increases, it makes it easier to change minds – including judicial minds.


How can you support climate legal action?

As a starting point for getting smart on this, here’s a list of a few representative organizations involved in climate legal action:

Earthjustice

With over 150 full time lawyers, this non-profit is increasingly focused on climate and energy, representing hundreds of clients for free in climate-related litigation. See their annual report for more info.

Sabin Center For Climate Change Law

This group at Columbia University develops legal techniques to address climate change, helps educate the next generation of climate lawyers, and publishes some really good climate litigation databases. Also see their blog.

Climate Science Legal Defense Fund

This small non-profit provides pro-bono legal aid and resources to scientists who are threatened or silenced due to their findings or fields of study.

Greenpeace International’s Legal Unit

These lawyers provide litigation advice and legal knowledge to climate lawyers and activists around the world.

Urgenda

This foundation, having won a breakthrough climate case ratified by the Dutch supreme court in 2019, now provides support for climate litigation all over the world (see this interesting list of cases).

MilieuDefensie

This Dutch arm of Friends of The Earth brought the breakthrough case against Shell, and acts as a matchmaker between financial donors and other NGOs working on similar cases globally.


What are the trends in climate litigation?

To understand how climate litigation is accelerating globally (and climate advocates are getting more wins), check out these two reports:

This 2021 report (PDF), by a global association of insurers, looks at climate litigation from the perspective of corporations.

This is their taxonomy of cases in what they call the third global wave of climate litigation that started in 2020 (click to enlarge). Translation: climate litigants are getting bolder, making and winning bigger claims based on broader concepts like human rights, duty of care, and contribution to climate change.

Source: Geneva Association Climate Change Litigation Report, 2021

Then there’s this 2021 report by the London School of Economics (PDF), which highlights the following trends in climate litigation, among others:

  • a spread to new jurisdictions and geographies
  • human rights arguments increasingly being used in support
  • a greater variety of strategies being used against the carbon majors
  • cases against deceptive ‘greenwashing’ marketing campaigns
  • activism and COVID-19 impacting litigation
  • holding defendants accountable for future generations
  • seeking larger damages from corporations
  • claims for failing to disclose or incorporate climate risk into decision-making

So are the climate lawyers winning?

Not nearly fast enough. Despite recent momentum, the legal deck remains stacked in favor of the fossil fuel status quo. Appeals go on forever, enforcement of verdicts is a huge challenge, companies use special ‘corporate courts’ to end-run the system, and climate lawyers are massively out-funded and out-gunned.

So if you’re motivated to help on the climate legal action front, please do… it has great potential. But the earth needs more than a few good lawyers: it needs a lot of good lawyers, and lot of money supporting them.


P.S.: Who are the bad (opposing) lawyers?

Curious who’s defending the fossil fuel status quo in court? A group of law students has created something called Law Students For Climate Accountability. And they’ve ranked 100 top U.S. law firms by ‘climate scores,’ based on their representation of the fossil fuel industry and role in exacerbating climate change. Check out the five-year data here and their media coverage here.