Urgenda vs. the Dutch government

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On 24 June 2015, a district court in The Hague, Netherlands handed down its verdict in the unusual lawsuit filed by Urgenda and 900 Dutch citizens against the Dutch state.

The lawsuit was unusual in that it involved the government’s alleged failings in the fight against global warming. The court ruled against the government on the grounds that the Dutch constitution, based on the precautionary principle, requires it to defend its citizens and, accordingly, to act with determination and efficiency against this unprecedented evil of global warming, and that actions taken thus far have not been sufficient. In a way, the Dutch state was found guilty of “depraved indifference”. More precisely, the court ordered the government to take the measures necessary to reduce by 25% (relative to their levels in 1990) emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020.

Of course, the Dutch government will lodge an appeal against the verdict.

Without getting into pointless legal niceties, which are better handled by specialists, some believe that the lawsuit itself and the resulting verdict to be an awakening in citizen initiatives against government inaction. As such, it marks a change in mentality beyond political posturing. The court – an entity that is independent of political gamesmanship – has ruled on the basis of the facts and in consideration of the basic principles enshrined in the Dutch constitution. It did so only after conducting a long preliminary analysis, after having heard the various parties involved, and held hearings by numerous experts. There were no long passionate arguments, no stirring speeches, just a lengthy study of the facts and a patient airing of controversial positions.

True, the government’s position is not easy. Everyone agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced, but behind, or rather, beyond this obvious fact is something that is often concealed – there are financial profits to be maintained, industrial sectors to defend and jobs to protect. The court could not and should not venture into such a political minefield. In accordance with its mandate, it stuck to the legal texts and its assessment of the facts in rendering its verdict.

Will the court of appeal offer another interpretation of constitutional texts? If the verdict is upheld, how will it be executed? Who will enforce it? Who will ensure that results are measured impartially?

Beyond this single case, concerning the Netherlands alone, other lawsuits of the same type will emerge in other countries to force governments to take suitable measures against climate change. Do the constitutions of these countries authorise such binding verdicts? Will the necessary international cooperation, which should prevail, be strengthened by these court actions? These are all questions that do not yet have answers.

In any case, the existence, the nature, and the conclusions of this first lawsuit seem to prove that the ball is rolling in ensuring that the struggle against climate change is from being mere wishful thinking.

Alexandre Jeanblanc

Investment Specialist, SRI

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