866 Dutch citizens recently sued the government of the Netherlands arguing that their stance on climate change was illegal. On July 24, 2015, a court in the Hague ruled that, in fact, the Dutch government had violated applicable tort law by failing to take greater action to combat climate change. Part of the ruling requires the Dutch government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% in five years. Environmentalists hope that the precedent established by this case will usher in similar lawsuits worldwide.
The basis of the lawsuit was tort law. Under tort law, courts are empowered to prevent harm to private citizens that is caused by the negligence or recklessness of another. According to the allegations of the lawsuit, the Dutch government has failed to prevent harm to its citizens by failing to tackle climate change. The lawsuit also alleges that repeated failure to broker agreements at the international level is not an excuse for domestic governments to take no action.
Nevertheless, these types of lawsuits raise questions about the role of judges, who are often not elected by the people, to make policy decisions that have such massive implications. This is a question that is not limited to European governments. American courts, especially the Supreme Court, are frequently criticized for “legislating from the bench,” whereby judges who are often appointed, and therefore unaccountable to the people, make decisions that significantly affect public policy. Furthermore, the trend currently taking place in Europe faces a further setback in the United States because the US Constitution does not protect a person’s environmental rights.
According to the Guardian, 8,000 citizens are currently preparing a similar lawsuit against the Belgian government and plans are under way to bring this type of lawsuit in Norway, as well.
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