Please join us for the latest Human Rights Speaker Series, hosted by the University of Essex Human Rights Centre and the Essex Armed Conflict and Crisis Hub.
This seminar brings together lawyers and researchers to analyse the growing importance of litigation in tackling climate change. The seminar will discuss active and past cases, highlighting the role of human rights within a broader framework of domestic and international climate justice.
In recent years, the Courts have become a key forum in tackling the climate emergency. At least 1000 cases have been brought forward globally on climate grounds in just the last six years. National and international courts are being filled with cases prompting state and corporate actors to reduce emissions and redress harms caused by climate change. Human rights have become a key element in many of these challenges, bringing into focus the obligations of governments and the responsibilities of corporate actors. Rights-based litigation is a way to bring forward the voices and concerns of the most vulnerable populations, often located in the Global South, against fossil fuel production and towards a just and equitable future. This panel will showcase perspectives from leading lawyers and researchers highlighting key cases in the Courts today, the challenges faced, and the future of rights-based litigation.
Richard Harvey is Legal Counsel on Campaigns and Actions at Greenpeace International in Amsterdam, where he has worked since 2014. He specialises in climate change and human rights litigation, from Norway to the Philippines. He strives to hold corporations and governments to account for the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable climate for all.
He is a barrister (England & Wales, 1971) and practised as an attorney at the New York Bar (1982-2000). For five decades he has focused on major human rights litigation, environmental justice, domestic and international criminal law, and post-conflict resolution. He is a member of the international team of barristers at Garden Court Chambers, London.
Courts and statutory bodies everywhere are dealing with environmental litigation: from Coroner’s Court in London to the Human Rights Commission in the Philippines; from the European Court of Human Rights to the UK Advertising Standards Authority. Of course, they are hearing expert testimony from climate scientists, professors of socio-economics, UN agencies and medical health professionals. But they are also hearing from ordinary people experiencing extraordinary suffering: survivors of extreme weather events; parents whose children are dying from polluted air; and elders whose lives will be cut short due to government inaction and corporate lies.
Who bears responsibility? What must they do? What can we do? Spoiler alert: I don’t have all the answers.
Melinda Janki is an international lawyer challenging massive oil/gas production offshore Guyana. In 2020 she won a case that cut ExxonMobil’s environmental permits down from 23 years to 5 years. She is counsel on a case challenging the grant of the petroleum licence to ExxonMobil, Hess and CNOOC. Melinda also represents a university professor and indigenous Wapichan youth in a climate change constitutional case challenging Guyana’s oil/gas production as contrary to the right to a healthy environment. The right to a healthy environment was included in Guyana’s Constitution following legal analysis and lobbying by Melinda. Melinda also drafted Guyana’s environmental laws, as a result of which every environmental impact assessment must assess the direct and indirect effects of greenhouse gas emissions on the atmosphere, the climate and the ocean. Melinda has worked in more than 20 countries. She has advised governments, international companies, indigenous peoples, conservation organisations and international financial institutions.
Climate change is an existential threat. The science is clear. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are stopped the earth will become too hot to support life as we know it and the ocean will become acid. As politicians put profit above people, it is up to people to put planet above profit. Melinda will examine the Guyana situation from the perspective of environmental justice. Guyana is a carbon sink that will become a 4 billion ton carbon bomb if the government and ExxonMobil carry out plans to extract oil/gas. Melinda will discuss the role of litigation in stopping this carbon bomb. She will also highlight gaps in the legal framework which place responsible parties outside the reach of the law.
Plugging the enforcement gap: The rise and rise of human rights in climate change litigation
Climate change law provides little means to hold state and corporate actors to account for failing to deliver on the promised emission reductions. Similarly, liability and insurance regimes all over the world are yet to provide convincing answers to the complex compensatory and restorative justice questions associated with the impacts of climate change, such as floods, droughts, wildfires and people displacement.
Before climate change law rises to these challenges, litigants around the world have increasingly tried to push the boundaries of extant law, by filing test cases prompting state and corporate actors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and redress the harms associated with the impacts of climate change. In March 2021, the world’s leading climate litigation databases curated by the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law and the Grantham Research Institute in Climate Change and the Environment list over 2,000 cases worldwide.
To date, only 112 of these cases invoke human rights, but the numbers are rising fast. By far and large, human rights-based climate cases – broadly understood as encompassing also complaints before national and international quasi-judicial and non-judicial bodies – predominantly target states (e.g. citizens suing governments), but increasingly also non-state actors (e.g. citizens suing corporations). Typically, most of these cases rely on human rights to prop up arguments based on private or administrative law. ‘Pure’ human rights complaints are however on the rise, with individual and groups seeking human rights remedies at the national and international level, with the aim to name and shame state and corporate actors. Conversely, no inter-state complaint based on human rights has been lodged, though this matter has been at the centre of much scholarly speculation.
This contribution will take stock of these developments, explaining what climate litigation is and how it works, and why it increasingly relies on human rights.
Background reading: Plugging the enforcement gap: The rise and rise of human rights in climate change litigation
Birsha Ohdedar is Lecturer in Law at the University of Essex. He works on issues of climate justice, water, human rights and climate change litigation at both the international and domestic level, with a regional interest in South Asia. Birsha is a research associate at the International Environmental Law Research Centre and an associate editor of the Law, Environment and Development Journal. Prior to entering academia, Birsha worked for many years as a lawyer at law firms and NGOs in UK, New Zealand and India.