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The Climate Litigation Landscape: The Hottest Year in History and Accountability Amidst COP 28

Image: Yale Climate Connections. As 2023 is likely the hottest year in the past 125,000 years and with the annual United Nations sponsored climate summit concluding this week failing to arrive at a legally binding path to significant carbon emission reductions or to the phaseout of fossil fuels responsible for the climate crisis, enter the litigation attorneys, reported Mongabay.

The results of this 28th COP held in Dubai, largely influenced by fossil fuel interests, has set a voluntary pledge for the “transitioning away from fossil fuels” leaving a litany of loopholes for large emitters such as the U.S., China, and India.

As our Earth, our only home, and the only place we live, thrive, and have our families, remains on a path for catastrophic global warming, litigation attorneys are entering the fray forcing fossil fuel interests to be regulated by governments under existing laws.

There are now more than 2,500 climate-related lawsuits slowly percolating through various courts globally according to the Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Some focus on addressing physical risks – seeking compensation for those harmed by climate change – while others focus on transition risk – pushing companies to transition to a low–carbon, sustainable, and equitable future. 

According to the Grantham Research Institute on Climate and the Environment, more than 50 percent of climate cases have had a direct judicial outcome that benefits climate action. In 2021 and 2022, 27 and 26 climate greenwashing cases were filed against global corporations. High-emitting industries are often targeted throughout different stages in the emissions that drive climate change.

This litigation process is slow and tedious and does not revel in sound bites from global business extravaganzas such as COP 28 in Dubai. Litigation also may not move quick enough to prevent increasing dire sea-level rise. 

Remember while climate politics are new, climate science is not.  We have had generations of analysis to get this point, and now we have voluntary commitments at best.

Generations ago

  • 1824: Joseph Fourier posited that the Earth’s atmosphere could trap heat.

  • 1856: Eunice Newton Foote discovered that carbon dioxide and water trapped more heat than other gasses.

  • 1896: Svante Arrhenius described the greenhouse gas effect.

  • 1938: Guy Callender further explained the greenhouse gas effect. He would continue to argue into the 1960s that industrial gasses were warming the planet. 

  • 1979: 1st World Climate Conference recognizes that climate change is 100% happening, with some uncertainty whether 100% driven by industry.

  • 1988: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now,” James Hansen, Director, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA, presenting to the U.S. Senate Energy committee.

  • 1989: The IPCC was established by the UN to provide a scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts.

  • 1990: First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

  • 1992: Rio Earth Summit leads to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

  • 1995: Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

  • 1997: Kyoto Protocol was adopted, and the U.S. shortly signed the agreement.

  • 2000: First National Climate Assessment, entitled Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change.

  • 2001: President Bush removes the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol.

  • 2006: Former Vice President Al Gore debuted the film An Inconvenient Truth

  • 2007: Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of climate change.

While recent court wins have pushed some sectors and companies to actively transition to a low-carbon, sustainable, and equitable future, legal processes will take years to create positive impacts for our planet and our communities. We need all businesses to proactively transition to a better future, we cannot wait for court cases or for companies to be forced to make changes.


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