Can Civil Courts Save the Climate? Strategic Climate-change Litigation Before Civil Courts
Keywords:climate‑change litigation, tort law, causality of emissions, human rights, political questions doctrine
Climate change is an urgent global problem, and national legislatures must enhance their efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions drastically. Individuals and NGOs have filed public law actions against national legislators before international courts (prominently the ECHR) and several constitutional courts to allege violations of constitutional and human rights. In a more recent development, civil courts too are being seized with climate‑change litigation. In 2021, a Dutch court ruling on an action by an NGO against the Royal Dutch Shell Group held that Shell is obliged to reduce its CO2 emissions considerably. This judgment, based on the Dutch Civil Code’s general tort regulations, has triggered a wave of similar actions before German courts. Such cases of individual plaintiffs, supported by NGOs, suing private companies for damages or for an immediate reduction of emissions are examples of ‘strategic litigation’ aimed at bringing about broad societal changes beyond the scope of the individual case at hand. The article analyses the political implications, tackles the question of whether general tort law is a suitable instrument to address the climate‑change problem, and discusses how civil courts may handle these cases. Climate change is a complex, multi-stakeholder issue that requires a difficult process of balancing social, legal, and economic interests – which is the task of democratically legitimised parliaments, not primarily a task of courts.