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Climate Action’s Day in Court

In today's issue of "This Week in Climate", we look at the state of climate lawsuits around the world.
Julian Moore
Jul 31, 2023 10 min read
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This summer may go down as the hottest in 100,000 years, and if anything has become clear, it is that the world’s efforts to slow climate change have not been sufficient.

That inaction has left many climate activists and advocates with one remaining option to get world leaders’ attention: sue.

This week the United Nations released its survey on the state of climate litigation around the world to take stock of how those efforts are going, and what they might accomplish in the future.

The good news is that across the world, climate lawsuits are on the rise. In 2017, the report only found 884 climate cases in 24 jurisdictions. Those numbers have risen to 2,180 and 64, respectively. The majority of those cases are taking place in the Global North, but claims in the Global South, where impacts are being felt most immediately, are also growing.

That paints a promising picture for climate litigation, which is gaining legitimacy in court systems that have often steered clear of approaching what seemed like a far-away problem. Here we dive into a reality that could prove to be a little more complicated.

English-Speaking World Leads Climate Cases

The United States, long famous for its lawsuit culture, is currently in the best position to deliver results for climate action in court.

Of the 2,180 global climate cases tracked by Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law through the end of last year, more than 70% were based in the United States.

The legal system that brought you classic disclaimers such as “contents hot” on coffee cups has heard 1,522 different climate litigation cases since 2017, making it far and away the most active country for climate lawsuits.

After the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada round out the top five countries with Germany just ahead of Canada. lead in climate lawsuits with 127, 79 and 34 cases, respectively.

Many factors are likely contributing to this trend, but one of them may be the legacy of the English legal system. The U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia each use the common law system, which grants more wide-ranging authority to courts to make policy changes than in civil law systems that are common in Europe and Latin America.

The common law structure doesn’t make court cases more likely to succeed in court, but it means plaintiffs can accomplish more direct, binding changes through lawsuits when other branches of government fail to act.

Climate Rights Wins

Legal arguments for climate rights have led to some groundbreaking victories in the last three years.

One such case was Daniel Billy and others v. Australia.

The Torres Straight Islanders represented a group of activists who live in the low-lying Torres Straight Islands off of Australia’s northern coast who claimed that sea-level rise is interfering with their right to enjoy their culture and be free from “arbitrary interferences” in their private lives and homes.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee found that by taking insufficient action to reduce its emissions, the Australian government was indeed infringing on the islanders’ rights. Australia was until recently a climate pariah on the global stage, with its former Prime Minister defiantly promising to build more coal power.

The Torres Straight Islanders case represented two firsts in international climate law. It was the first time a United Nations body found that a country’s inaction on climate change constituted a violation of human rights, and the first ruling that affirmed indigenous rights were uniquely at risk from climate change.

… and Climate Rights Losses

Wins like the have come at the same time that exasperating losses which point to the shortcomings of some long-standing legal doctrines to adequately address a new climate reality.

In 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), rejected a climate rights case brought by 10 families from across the globe in Armando Ferrão Carvalho and Others v. The European Parliament and the Council, known as “The People’s Climate Case”.

The Ferrão applicants came from the tourism and agricultural industries in countries spanning from Portugal to Fiji. They challenged the European Union’s climate policy goals in court, arguing they didn’t go far enough to adequately protect their livelihoods and human rights from the impacts of climate change.

Their case rested on an appeal to expand a legal doctrine known as the “strict standing test”. The test dates back to a 1963 case lodged by German clementine importers, and says that applicants need to show “an individual concern particular to them or their group” in order to have their claim considered by European courts.

The CJEU rejected the Ferrão case on the grounds that, since climate change impacted the entire world, not just a particular group, that they could not prove the EU’s actions harmed them individually, and therefore had no grounds to sue.

Yes, that’s right: you can’t sue Europe for destroying your livelihood because Europe may have contributed to destroying everyone’s livelihood.

Aside from conflicting with common sense, the decision creates a problem for future European climate litigation. According to the report, the CJEU’s approach “prevents individuals and environmental groups from challenging European Union law measures of general application, even when human rights are affected.”

Get Involved in Climate Law

The report also highlights emerging trends in climate lawsuits, such as the use of attribution science to prove damages from climate change.

In 2020, the Natural Resource Defense Council used attribution metrics to persuade a Washington, D.C. district court that it could sue for damages from climate change. The case dealt with the impact of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and was a novel approach to gain legal standing in a climate case.

The Natural Resource Defense Council is currently looking for more talent to help pursue innovative climate cases like these. They are hiring for 50 roles around the United States, and two in China, on Climatebase.

Environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice made headlines earlier this year when it sued the Biden Administration to stop the Willow oil project in Alaska’s Western Arctic region. They are currently hiring for 99 positions across the United States.

🌎 New Climate Jobs

Check out some of the latest featured jobs below. If you don't see anything that speaks to you, you can always go to Climatebase to explore thousands of other opportunities.

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Jobs to Move America

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SB Energy DevCo (US) Inc.

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Climable, Inc.

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Wunder Capital

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VitroLabs Inc

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Pendulum Systems

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That's it for this week! Remember, you can always view thousands of more jobs on

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The Author

Julian Moore