Dutch citizens are suing their government for failing to act on climate change

A court heard arguments this week in a lawsuit brought by Dutch citizens for failing to act on climate change.

The case is being spearheaded by the Urgenda Foundation, a sustainability group. They are being joined by nearly 900 plaintiffs who responded to a call for “crowd pleading.” (This was the first example of this we were ever able to find).

The immediate goal of the suit is to have the court force the government to accelerate emissions reductions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. That would represent a radical shift from the current pledge of 16 percent below 2005 and 6 percent below 1990 levels.

To justify the change, they also want the court declare that global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius will lead to a violation of fundamental human rights worldwide, and to declare that the Dutch state is acting unlawfully by not contributing its proportional share to preventing a global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius.

“Urgenda has observed that Dutch politicians have not made the true scope and urgency of the climate issue the subject of any broad and intensive social discussion with the Dutch general public,” the group said in its original letter to the government, “although the scope and severity of this issue makes it one of the biggest challenges currently facing humankind.”

An English translation of this week’s arguments and of the government’s response was not immediately available.

According to Columbia University environmental law professor Michael Gerrard, while similar cases have been attempted on a smaller scale — usually unsuccessfully — in the U.S., this is the first time anyone has tried suing their own government over climate change (although a Belgian group has just begun proceedings against their government).

And because of its novelty, there is no way of telling whether they’ll be able to succeed.

Among other arguments, the plaintiffs cited the Oslo Principles on Global Obligations to Reduce Climate Change, which were formally adopted in March by a group of experts in international law, human rights law, environmental law.

These state, among other things, that all countries are “required to reduce the GHG-emissions within its jurisdiction or control to the permissible [level] within the shortest time feasible.”

Gerrard, who was involved in principles, said that the case will prove an important test of how these principles can be applied.

“It’s one thing to have the rights say something, but there’s a separate question of whether you can enforce them in court,” he said. “This is a very important test of that question.”

A district court in the Hague is expected to issue its verdict in June.

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