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The law as a lever of community action against climate change


Long delays and the complexity of international climate diplomacy is increasingly pushing civil society to act on its own. Citizens everywhere in the world are opting to make progress in combating climate change by resorting to an arm, the law.

A movement gaining momentum


In January, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published its annual report  on the state of environmental disputes. The first observation was that the number of lawsuits has increased considerably. Since 2017, the number of proceedings has almost doubled, from 834 cases in 24 countries to more than 1,550 in 38 different countries. Trends are becoming more apparent: increasingly, the exposure of certain populations to the impacts of climate change has been linked to the defence of human rights. Thus, pressure on governments and corporations to change their practises is mounting.

In France, the beginning of the year was marked by the condemnation by the administrative court of Paris, in first instance, of the State for its inaction regarding the climate. After two years of mobilisation, involving several associations (Oxfam France, Greenpeace, etc.), a petition signed by more than two million people and a highly mediatised campaign orchestrated by the association Notre Affaire à tous (We’re all concerned), this decision was the first success in establishing climatic justice. The latter will give victims the opportunity to claim compensation from the State. The procedure will continue in spring, with the possible obligation for the State to take concrete measures. This is not the only example and has occurred in a global movement driven by citizens.

A new tool for community mobilisation


More than ever, the combat against climate change is a problem confronting the community. Proof of this is the organisation of marches for the climate and “Fridays for the future”. The law is one means of action and has shown increasing efficiency, as emphasized by the UNEP report. Regarding this, Judith Rochfeld, a professor of law at the Sorbonne, told the newspaper Le Monde,

Citizens are forcing their governments to reinstate the commons in politics”

In December 2019, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands condemned the government to honour its commitments to reduce CO2 emissions. This case was supported by an NGO representing nearly 900 people. In Columbia, a group of 25 children and youths, supported by the NGO Dejusticia, took the government to court  to oblige it to put an end to deforestation; the Supreme Court deliberated in their favour in 2018. At the beginning of the year, chief Raoni, the indigenous head of the Kayapo community filed a lawsuit against Jair Bolsonaro for crimes against humanity.

Use of the law in favour of the climate accelerated following the COP 21. A new step was taken, with recognition of individuals as actors in their own right against climate change. The strength of the movement stems from actions carried out locally in territories and on the global scale. According to Judith Rochfeld, a “global civil society” is emerging, despite the painstakingly long processes involved and the rare positive decisions with impact. Also, these actions are still limited to only a few countries.


What if nature also has rights?


Disputes over the climate rely on different legal bases: human rights, national laws in favour of the environment, and international commitments, in particular those made in the framework of the Paris Agreement. The scope of application of these disputes is expanding, raising new legal problems and the need to make changes to the law. This attempt at transformation includes the notion of bestowing a legal personality to nature, an idea that is gaining ground, as observed in the report published by the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, the Earth Law Center, and International Rivers. This approach is inspired by indigenous traditions that consider human beings and nature as a whole and not as distinct entities. Its promoters present it as a means of levering the important changes required to protect the environment. On the one hand, it states that nature has rights and is not the property of human beings. On the other hand, it provides the opportunity to defend the rights of nature in the law courts.

The report focuses in particular on the legal personality of rivers and has made progress in numerous places around the world, beyond the emblematic example of the Whanganui in New Zealand.

The effects of these recognitions are not necessarily directly visible, but they have a strong symbolic value and open the way to changing the prevailing paradigm.


To find out more, discover the interview of  Valérie Cabanes

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