How a legal revolution could fight global warming

By: Raveena Aulakh
Published: 9-21-2015
The Star

For years, Dutch lawyer Roger Cox argued that only law could save humanity from a climate crisis. He even wrote a book about it: Revolution Justified. It was an intriguing concept but few believed it would succeed.

Then in June, in a historic verdict, a Netherlands court ordered the government to cut emissions by 25 per cent in five years to fulfil its duty of care to protect citizens from climate change. Cox broke down in the courtroom, crying and shaking.

“It was an emotional moment,” says Cox, who led the lawsuit on behalf of Urgenda Foundation, an NGO, and almost 900 Dutch citizens.

He says Canada, too, could face a similar lawsuit. And yes, he says he would help. In Toronto recently to speak at an event organized by the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Cox talked about the Dutch verdict, its global impact and Canada’s shocking inaction on climate change.

You have said suing your government wasn’t a fight. But it really sounds like one. It’s not a fight. If anything, we did it out of love for our country, for people who live there and for future generations. We are on good terms with the people in the government. We are using one of our institutions to get an important question asked. It would be strange if we encounter runaway climate change in the next few decades and would look back (and see) that no one ever thought to ask a court to rule on it. It has been a political issue for 20 years but has only gotten worse. That means our executive and legislators are not up to the task.

If the court had decided that there is no liability or negligence on the part of the state, I would have lived with that. I couldn’t have lived with the fact that we were not even trying to engage our courts.

It is important to engage the courts: The structure that our life depends on is under threat of collapsing if we don’t protect it.

It’s ironic that the Dutch government, which has a decent reputation in the realm of climate change, was sued . . .

Netherlands was good (with climate action) until a few years ago. The government is not doing enough now. Look at our neighbours: Germany and Denmark are leading the world on this issue. They have very strong economies, they innovate, they have thousands of people working in the green business. They are about to reduce 40 per cent of their emissions by 2020. Netherlands needed to be held to account.

The Dutch government has said it will appeal the decision.

Actually, the government has said it will comply with the ruling, that it will increase its emissions target from 16 per cent to 25 per cent by 2020. But the government has legal questions and so will appeal it, too. It (the government) is afraid that this may set a precedent for other societal questions . . . like health care. It fears that a court, in the future, could intervene in policies in other areas, too.

You are already working on similar climate change litigation in Belgium. Is suing governments for inaction our future now?

I don’t know how this will develop in the next few years. But I know there is a lot of interest . . . many people believe that the Paris summit will fail in the end. There will be some sort of agreement but far off what will be necessary to stay below two-degree-Celsius warming that we need to. So I know people and NGOs are already thinking about what to do next. Hopefully in a few months we will see a third, a fourth and a even fifth country doing the same. I think climate change could be the new big litigation against the government — just the way tobacco was once.

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