Jim Hansen says litigation and political mobilisation are more effective than protests.
“Those are defence. We should be on the offensive. The lawsuits versus Trump and the fossil fuel industry are offence. People should use the democratic process,” he says. “That’s our best chance. It’s better than getting arrested.”
He draws comparisons with two other great, slow-moving, but ultimately successful legal and public opinion battles: against segregation, where the innate conservatism of judges was overcome by the civil rights movement, and tobacco, where the courts accepted the science despite a misinformation campaign by the industry.
“Climate change is a human rights issue,” Hansen says. “We are seeing injustice against the young. The present generation has a responsibility to future generations.”
Worldwide, the number of legislative activities related to climate change has increased from 99 to 164 in the past two years, according to a report earlier this year by the Grantham Research Institute and the Columbia Law School. Their study found that two-thirds of the litigation resulted in stronger regulations.
The vast majority of cases have been heard in the US, most notably the 2007 supreme court ruling that greenhouse gases are a public health threat. To support future actions, some legal experts are volunteering their services, such as the Earth Justice group in San Francisco, whose motto is: “The Earth needs a lawyer”.
There have been sporadic successes elsewhere, including a lawsuit by a group of Dutch citizens who overturned their government’s move to weaken its greenhouse gas reduction target.
“Over the past 10 years courts are becoming more flexible,” said Cosmin Corendea, legal expert the at United Nations University Institute for Environment. “These isolated cases have started to flash up. It shows the willingness of courts to serve people.”
Corendea echoed Hansen’s call for more climate litigation in the countries that have highest emissions. “Go out there if you have the resources to do that and see if you can help other countries that can’t get to the courts so easily,” he said. “Any good litigation may help. It can raise awareness and create legal practice.”
According to Hansen, the action cannot come too soon. In a press conference at the climate conference, which is the first under the presidency of a small island state – Fiji – he noted that the risks are rising and so should the push for justice.
“We are entering a period of consequences and are in danger of being too late,” he warned. “I have come to note that greenhouse gas climate forcings are accelerating, not decelerating, and sea-level rise and ocean acidification are accelerating. We confront a mortal threat, now endangering the very existence of island and low-lying nations in the Pacific and around the planet. Accordingly, ambition must be increased and enforced.”