Climate rescuers in robes – politics
The day when all of Germany discovered the genre of climate lawsuits was April 29, 2021. At that time, the Federal Constitutional Court sent out a 127-page and very surprising decision. The German climate protection law was found to be partially unconstitutional explained. That was spectacular – until then, many experts believed that the court would not even declare such lawsuits admissible, let alone examine their content. For the Attorney Roda Verheyen, which drafted one of the successful constitutional complaints, it was a big day. “I must have walked jubilantly through the hallway of our law firm in Hamburg, that’s what my colleagues reported to me later,” she writes in her now published book “We all have a right to the future – an encouragement”, which she wrote together with the journalist Alexandra Endres wrote.
Was it a big day? The court had – extremely innovatively – put the future restrictions on freedom on the scales, which will become inevitable if the remaining budgets for carbon emissions are largely used up in the next few years. Justice between the generations was anchored in the Basic Law, as were the Paris climate goals. So a big day. But also one that raised high expectations that have not yet been fulfilled. The triumph of the German climate lawsuits has not materialized for the time being; Several regional courts have just dismissed lawsuits against car manufacturers.
2000 cases are pending worldwide
Verheyen’s book is, unsurprisingly, a plea for climate protection to enforce them in court, as she has been doing as a lawyer for many years, on behalf of environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Germanwatch. Here, of course, legal action also turns into activism to draw attention to the urgent problems of climate change.
But if you read Verheyen’s book carefully, you will learn that Climate lawsuits – at least many of them – are a serious legal matter are. They have long since become a global phenomenon, and the Karlsruhe climate decision was by no means the beginning of the story. In the Netherlands, a court had already sentenced the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 (and confirmed in 2019), in the same year a similar judgment was announced in Pakistan. Judgments on climate protection have also been made in Australia, Belgium and the Czech Republic, and lawsuits are being filed worldwide, sometimes with more, sometimes less success. The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at New York’s Columbia University counts more than 2000 procedures worldwide.
The recurring objection to such lawsuits is: Isn’t it primarily the parliaments and governments that have to ensure the reduction of emissions and initiate an energy transition? Isn’t it up to politicians to examine different options and weigh costs against benefits? Aren’t the courts overwhelmed by this?
One of the strengths of Verheyen’s book is that it resolves this apparent contradiction. Because politics has often long since taken the first step, for example in the Paris Agreement and in the Climate Protection Act. That is binding law – and thus the natural habitat of the courts. It is anything but easy to translate climate targets into concrete measures. But this is where science helps. The 1.5-degree threshold formulated there can be converted into carbon dioxide budgets: How many gigatonnes can still be emitted before the budget is used up? Courts can work with this mixture of legal regulations and scientific limits. The Karlsruhe court impressively demonstrated this.
Corporations work in a way that is harmful to the climate, but legally
It is more complicated with the lawsuits against large companies, whose joint responsibility for emissions hardly lags behind the share of entire countries. Several courts have expressly justified their reluctance with the fact that this is really the job of governments and parliaments, because the car manufacturers operate a business that is harmful to the climate, but also legal.
The hesitation may have something to do with the fact that you are entering unfamiliar territory. Self-restraint is not mandatory. Because in the end it is also behind them Climate lawsuits a legally comprehensible logic – the logic of neighborhood lawsuits. One causes emissions, the other suffers from it. It’s just that this isn’t about smoke from the barbecue and the noise of the lawn mower, but about carbon dioxide that causes global warming and extreme weather. This affects human rights such as freedom, health and property. Courts are the right place to protect them.
Verheyen repeatedly draws attention to those affected who are demanding these rights. For example, the four young people from the North Sea island of Pellworm who complained in Karlsruhe. They are already watching how the rising sea level threatens the dike around their island. One of her clients is a mountain guide from Peru whose house is threatened by glacial melt. Philippine rice farmers can hardly cultivate their fields due to extreme rainfall. Due to their age, the Swiss “climate pensioners” are particularly at risk from heat waves – they will plead their case before the European Court of Human Rights at the end of March.
Vereyen tells the story in a deliberately optimistic tone, she doesn’t conjure up end-of-the-world scenarios, but shows options for action on. One conclusion can be drawn from her book: climate protection will not disappear from the courtrooms, quite the opposite. If politics fails, their heyday could be yet to come.