Alice Mogwe & Olivier de Schutter : "We demand climate justice"

The climate crisis calls for urgent measures: that of putting an end to the impunity of companies responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, according to Alice Mogwe, President of the International Federation for Human Rights, and Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, in an article published in "Le Monde".

Floods in Germany, Belgium and China; mega-fires in California (USA), Greece, Turkey and Siberia (Russia); record temperatures in the Pacific Northwest: a chronicle of the climate emergencies that took place over the course of the summer. The populations, and among them the most vulnerable groups, are on the front line. Who will be held responsible?

States are not up to the task, their commitments are too modest. With regard to the objective set by the international community, to keep the global temperature rise below 2°C, it is not enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its sixth report, estimates that the contributions announced as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement place us on a trajectory of 2.7°C by the end of the century. Moreover, even these unambitious pledges are not being met. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, at the same rate as summits and scientific forums.

In the courts

Yet it is striking that a handful of companies are responsible for a sizeable part of the infernal machine that has been set in motion. The oil, gas, coal and cement giants - about 100 companies - are responsible for more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions since the beginning of the industrial era.

Many of these companies use their influence to support the status quo, some even funding ’climate skeptics’ who propagate doubt on climate change. In 2013, approximately $900 million (about €773 million) was spent on denying the reality of climate change. The responsibility of these actors is considerable, yet their impunity in relation to climate change remains almost absolute: it is a blind spot in environmental policy.

Judges can help. The inability of governments to act decisively explains why, for some years now, the courts have been entering the scene: since 1986, more than 1,800 court cases have been filed around the world concerning the climate.

Until recently, these lawsuits were mainly directed against states. As with the "Affaire du siècle" in France, the Urgenda case in the Netherlands and the "Affaire climat" in Belgium, everyday citizens and associations have been using the courts to denounce the lacking ambition of governmental measures to tackle climate change, particularly in view of the considerable impact of climate change on human rights.

Reversing the pattern

A new battleground is now opening up, focusing on the responsibility of polluters. At the beginning of 2020, fourteen local authorities joined several associations to denounce Total’s "climate inaction". In a landmark decision on 26 May, the Hague court ordered Shell to reduce CO2 emissions not only from its operations but also from its supply chains, so as to achieve a 45% reduction by 2030, compared to 2019.

It is time to accelerate. Climate change is, par excellence, an issue that traditional political mechanisms are ill-equipped to handle. The political system, which often operates in the short term according to the immediate concerns of the electorate, is not able to meet the challenge of taking courageous decisions with medium to long-term effects. It is time to reverse the pattern, and enable communities affected by the environmental crisis to seek justice, and wherever possible to hold companies accountable for their contribution to climate change.

By launching the #SeeYouInCourt campaign, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), its member organisations and affected communities in Chile, Peru, Colombia and elsewhere are embarking on a new chapter in this movement. They are launching a series of legal actions to hold companies to account.

By putting affected people at the centre of these actions, and by focusing on a human rights approach, this campaign aims to remind people that climate change is not an abstract concept that only concerns future generations: it is an emergency for vulnerable people, who are on the front line.

6.9 trillion dollars needed

International law has room for improvement to widen the range of responses to the threat posed by climate disruption, and the economic actors who are complicit in it. The UN Human Rights Council is currently debating the recognition of the right to a healthy environment as an internationally recognised human right, as is already the case in several national constitutions.

This Sunday 31 October, the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 26 opens in the United Kingdom. It will focus, in particular, on the mobilisation of the financial sector, while 6,900 billion dollars of investment and financing are needed to achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

By launching the #SeeYouInCourt campaign, we are saying that we cannot wait any longer. Already, from Madagascar to the Central American ’Dry Corridor’, droughts are causing food insecurity, and rising sea levels and repeated flooding are forcing mass migration. We demand climate justice, and for the companies that are primarily responsible for climate disruption to be finally held to account.

Read more