Checking out the ensia website recently I encountered an article that surprised me. In a good way. Ensia, published at the University of Minnesota, is one of my favourite environmental websites, largely because of its range of subjects and its solutions-focused approach.

The article that caught my particular attention was entitled “Across the globe, those harmed by climate change are turning to the courts.” And indeed they are.

Apparently there are currently some 2,002 cases of climate litigation in 38 countries, and the rate of lawsuits is accelerating. The numbers come from a report entitled “Global trends in climate change litigation: 2022 snapshot” issued by the United Nations Environment Programme and compiled by researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

These are lawsuits attempting to compel corporations, governments or other parties to take responsibility for climate effects as opposed to all human activities that hurt the environment. Even though groups that take on the wealthy and politically powerful face an uphill struggle, the activism these attempts represent can in itself bring results.

Unsurprisingly, the greatest number of cases take place in that most litigious of countries the United States. Of the 2,002 cases, 1,440 were in the U.S., the rest elsewhere with 88 in the Global South.

Some of the main messages from the report include the following:

• The number of cases has more than doubled since 2015 with a quarter filed in the last two years.
• Litigation is being used to enforce or enhance climate commitments made by governments.
• In the past year, further cases have been brought against fossil fuel companies, especially outside the United States.
• Corporations in food and agriculture, transport, plastics and finance are also increasingly being targeted.

The report mentions that the campaign to make “ecocide” an international crime “has acquired significant momentum” with a legal definition having been produced by an Independent Expert Panel convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation. And the report goes on to say that “Interest in the criminalization of ecocide has been recorded at the government or parliamentary level in at least 15 countries.”

The NGO All Rise has filed a communication at the International Criminal Court requesting an investigation into Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s role in crimes against humanity resulting from deforestation of the Amazon and the harm done to indigenous populations. This is a case to watch.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recognized the role of litigation in affecting “the outcome and ambition of climate governance.” We shouldn’t have to sue our governments and corporations to get them to do the right thing. But if that’s what it takes.

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