Developments in climate change litigation series: an introduction  


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Evidence has shown that high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere are the leading cause of increasing global temperatures and the resulting changes to the climate. 

Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing, and agriculture release significant amounts of GHGs into the atmosphere which have caused observed changes in the climate system over and above natural variability and in its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that human activity is 'extremely likely' to be the main cause of climate change.  

As of 2018, the 20 warmest years on record globally occurred since 1996, and the Met Office's State of the Climate Report for 2018 shows that the ten hottest years in the UK since 1884 have all happened since 2001. According to the IPCC, human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels and global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate, leading to increases in climate-related risks to health, livelihood, food security, water supply and economic growth.   

There are a number of complexities inherent in climate change. These stem not only from the subject matter, but also from socio-political factors and the limitations that exist in scientific research. For example: climate change issues are polycentric; the issues are not constrained by jurisdictional boundaries; and assessment of future impacts is based on modelling and predictions which give rise to uncertainty. 

There are a number of implications to consider for those attempting to frame the legal issues relating to climate change. In particular, climate change gives rise to disputes and problems that are not easily addressed by existing legal doctrines and frameworks. This  has led to scholars thinking of climate change as 'legally disruptive' - in that it requires reconciliation of the legal issues raised by climate change with existing legal orders. This has led to both the development of new legal regimes and consideration of climate change in a variety of legal disputes.  

To date, approximately 1500 climate change cases have been brought in nearly 30 countries, by a range of claimants, including states, cities, investors, NGOs and groups of individuals, including children. These claims have been framed across a broad spectrum of legal actions, including human rights, constitutional law, statutory planning regimes, corporate law, fiduciary duties and tort, including nuisance, negligence and product liability.  

Trowers & Hamlins have a team of dedicated energy, sustainability and environmental law specialists who have been closely following developments in climate change litigation. As part of a series of articles in the lead up to COP26, we'll review some of the recent climate change cases and consider the wider implications for central governments, local authorities and developers and those looking to bring forward infrastructure projects over the coming years. We'll also review the links with human rights, advances in climate science and the increasing collaboration between scientists, lawyers and those involved in legal decision-making.   
 

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