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Why there’s a moral duty to sue our government over climate change

The UK government is leading us to climate tragedy, by failing to align its climate change targets with science and international law. So 11 UK citizens, plus the charity Plan B, have started legal action against it. And we need your help.

The worst act of negligence in history is taking place in plain sight - the ultimate negligence against humanity and the ultimate negligence against life itself.

We know that without an urgent and radical change of direction the world is racing beyond critical and irreversible tipping points in the climate system (such as Arctic collapse and rainforest burn). That, in turn, is likely to lead to runaway global warming of 4˚C + in the course of this century. The consequences defy detailed description. Human civilization will be lost. Some humans will survive but most will not. Most species of animals will be gone.

We must do whatever it takes to avoid such an outcome. We know it can be done, but there are major obstacles to in our way: powerful vested interests, political inertia and a fast-closing time-window of opportunity. Nor does it help that the sheer scale of the danger is so overwhelming. It risks numbing our critical faculties because the reality is too painful to bear. Normally rational people take refuge in denial, resignation or comforting fantasies.

Yet this defining moment in human history confronts each one of us with a stark choice. Either we are part of the problem (if only by remaining ‘bystanders’) – or we are part of the solution.

11 UK citizens – plus the charity, Plan B - have decided to be part of the solution. We have concluded we have no choice but to take the UK Government to Court.

The Paris Agreement and the accountability deficit

Few seriously argue that global warming can be allowed to exceed ‘well below’ an additional 2˚C (indeed many believe the limit is too high given the impacts being felt even now). The Paris Agreement, signed by every government in the world, commits countries, collectively to that limit, along with the simultaneous obligation to pursue efforts towards limiting a temperature increase to 1.5˚C.

It is one thing, however, for 197 countries to agree, through a process of consensus, to a common goal (ie the global temperature limit); another to agree on the division of labour necessary to achieving it. The Paris Agreement adopted a simple formula for overcoming the difficulty: each country would determine its own contribution to the goal on the basis of certain general principles (such as equity). Although the Paris Agreement establishes a review process, there is no detail on how such a process is to be conducted, nor any process to compel parties to raise their ambition.

Imagine several countries bordering a common fishery. There are fewer and fewer fish every year. Scientists advise that unless the collective annual take is reduced to 100,000 fish, the stock will collapse irreversibly. The countries agree with the scientific advice, but fail to agree on how the 100,000 should be divided between them, each finding reasons to justify a greater than equal per capita share for themselves.  Rather than walk away without an agreement the countries decide that each of them will determine its own share of the 100,000 independently of the others. Inevitably, the aggregate of “nationally-determined” shares exceeds the 100,000 fish; and equally inevitably the fish stock collapses to the detriment of all the countries.

That, essentially, describes the current state of the international political process for tackling climate change. Every government claims to be doing the best it can considering its individual circumstances, and every government finds reasons to compare its contribution favourably to those of others. Inevitably the sum of all party contributions vastly outweighs the global budget for relative safety. The collective outcome is predictable: the world is racing towards disaster.

Arguably the review and “ratchet-up"’ processes of the Paris Agreement only make things worse. They foster the false impression that even if things are off track now, they can simply be corrected further down the line.

The Agreement itself recognises the problem, “emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges …[and]… holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C…”

Under the Paris Agreement everyone agrees on what needs to be done, but not how it should be done, and in the absence of any accountability, few assume their fair and necessary share of the burden.

If tragedy is to be avoided, this hole in the international regime (ie ‘the accountability deficit’) must be filled and filled urgently. There is no immediate prospect of revision to the Paris Agreement itself. An alternative strategy is needed. If governments are not truly accountable to the international political process, they must be held to account through the Courts.

The gathering global movement of climate litigation

In 2015, in the Netherlands, the citizens platform, the Urgenda Foundation, secured a landmark ruling from the Dutch High Court:

“If, and this is the case here, there is a high risk of dangerous climate change with severe and life-threatening consequences for man and the environment, the State has the obligation to protect its citizens from it by taking appropriate and effective measures.”

The Court ordered the Dutch Government to align its climate mitigation efforts to the global climate obligation.

The idea has caught on quickly with a host of similar cases emerging around the world, including in Belgium, Pakistan, the US, New Zealand, India and Ireland.

The paradigm case of the UK

The UK, as a rich, developed country, and a historically high greenhouse gas emitter, bears a particular responsibility to mitigate climate change. Under the UNFCCC, developed country Parties generally have a legal responsibility to take the lead. Ostensibly that is a responsibility the UK Government embraces. It loudly proclaims its ‘international leadership on climate change’.

Ten years ago the claim had some merit. The UK Climate Change Act 2008 was the first of its kind, and a model borrowed around the world. More recently UK diplomats did much to advance the Paris Agreement, and the UK has, of course, signed and ratified it.

Yet the current Government knows its domestic target for 2050, unchanged since 2008, is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement. It does not deny this, but makes lame excuses about the difficulty of setting a more ambitious target. Its leadership status makes this failing all the more serious. UK ‘leadership’ and its global model is now directing the world only closer towards the brink.

We, as citizens, face a choice. Do we accept our government’s abdication of responsibility (and so become complicit)? Or do we hold it answerable to the rule of law and demand that it does whatever it takes to keep our children and ourselves safe – aligning its targets to science and international law?

It’s not an easy thing to do. But twelve of us from all walks of life have concluded we now have no choice but to take the government to Court - before it’s too late.

You can read more about us here.

About the author

Tim Crosland is a barrister who previously worked for the government's legal service. He is now Director of Plan B.


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