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What do lavender farmers in France, beekeepers in Portugal, Romanian shepherds, Kenyan school children, Swedish reindeer herders and islanders in Germany and Fiji have in common? They’re demanding climate justice, now.  

People vs Arctic Oil Court Case in Oslo - Day 1 © Edward Beskow / Greenpeace

Greenpeace Nordic and Nature and Youth take on the Norwegian government in court for opening up new areas in the Arctic to oil drilling. © Edward Beskow / Greenpeace

With the support of Climate Action Network Europe, families in Germany, France, Portugal, Italy, Romania, Kenya and Fiji along with Indigenous Sámi youth from Sweden have just launched a lawsuit against the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union over its weak ambition in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the member states. These people know that they are particularly vulnerable to climate change. They know it because their lives are already affected by it.

They see the EU emissions reduction target as falling embarrassingly short of the EU’s own requirements and international law. They need the courts to realise — as they’ve realised — that weak targets mean the EU is failing to protect fundamental rights to life, health, occupation and property. They are demanding that EU emissions reduction targets be bold and ambitious and the courts could help make that happen.

The Court of Justice of the European Union will decide on whether or not they will accept the  lawsuit. Like people all over the world who are taking polluters and governments to court on behalf of a healthy planet, they are placing their trust in the EU justice system and hope that the court will step in to protect their rights. They demand that the EU accelerate its action to protect their rights and to live up to its self-proclaimed role as a global leader on climate action.

A legal victory is by no means certain. The main obstacle they face is whether the European Court will even hear the case. In challenges to legislative acts, the families would have to show how the impacts of climate change are affecting them individually in ways that other people do not suffer, whether it be the unique context of where they live or how they make a living, for example.

The courageous people filing this lawsuit are part of a growing movement all over the world that is using the justice system to hold their governments accountable. While we wait for the European Court’s response, here are three of many examples of people using the power of law to achieve climate justice across Europe.

Eemshaven Coal Plant Protest in GroningenAnti Kolen Demonstratie in Groningen © Greenpeace / Joris van Gennip

Representatives of several NGO’s and hundreds of supporters demonstrate in Groningen against the Essent/RWE coal plant in the Eemshaven. © Greenpeace / Joris van Gennip

  • Dutch citizens are facing off against their government over climate change… once again

In 2015, for the first time ever, a country’s government was held accountable for its contribution to dangerous climate change. The Urgenda Foundation’s case against the Netherlands, brought on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens, resulted in the court requiring the government to take more ambitious and effective action on climate change. This ruling immediately improved Dutch policies and even inspired cases in New Zealand, Belgium, Ireland, the UK, Switzerland and recently the families in the  #PeoplesClimateCase against the EU.  

The Urgenda climate case is without doubt one of the most important climate decisions ever made. The government appealed, and the case will be in front of the Dutch courts once again on 28 May 2018.  

Group Portrait of KlimaSeniorinnen in SwitzerlandKlimaseniorinnen © Greenpeace / Joris van Gennip

An association called KlimaSeniorinnen (Senior Women for Climate Protection) is preparing a legal complaint against the Swiss government challenging weak climate policies. © Greenpeace / Joris van Gennip

  • Senior Women for Climate Protection await decision by the Federal Administrative Court

In October 2016, an association of now more than 1,000 Swiss women aged 65 and older, the Senior Women for Climate Protection (KlimaSeniorinnen), demanded that their government protect their human rights and curb GHG emissions with stronger reduction, targets and measures.  Elderly people, especially senior women, are amongst the most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming as extreme heat is a real danger to them. The authorities responded to the KlimaSeniorinnen request by refusing to get involved. In May 2017, the senior women appealed to the Federal Administrative Court, which is expected to reach a decision soon.

The People vs Arctic Oil: Historic Lawsuit against Arctic Oil in Oslo © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

Ingrid Skjoldvær, head of Nature and Youth (left), and Truls Gulowsen, head of Greenpeace Norway (centre).
An unprecedented legal case is filed against the Norwegian government for allowing oil companies to drill for new oil in the Arctic Barents Sea. © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

  • Greenpeace Nordic and Nature and Youth take the next step in People v Arctic Oil

In Norway, Greenpeace Nordic and the youth association “Nature and Youth” took legal action against the government, which granted 13 oil companies licenses to drill in Arctic waters. In January 2018, The Oslo District Court decided that the Norwegian government does have a duty to protect the right of present and future generations to a healthy environment, but let the government off the hook because it illogically reasoned that the oil extracted in Norway is mostly exported and used outside of Norway. The plaintiffs appealed, and the fight against Arctic Oil will continue at the Court of Appeals in 2019.

Watch these cases and join the movement to support people and communities around the world who are taking legal action to seek climate justice.

Demand that governments and companies take action to protect people’s rights to a stable climate and healthy environment!

Louise Fournier and Kristin Casper are litigation counsels for Greenpeace’s global climate justice and liability campaign.