4 Potential Impacts of the Groundbreaking Decision in the Dutch Climate Case

Dutch citizens succeeded in suing their government to slash carbon emissions. Who’s next?
Jun 26, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Three Dutch judges sent a shock wave around the world on Wednesday when they ordered the government of the Netherlands to act on climate change by making deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

It’s the first ruling ordering a government to cut its carbon pollution by a national court that has the power to enforce its decisions.

So, Why Should You Care? Now activists, environmental law experts, and politics geeks are eager to see how the ruling affects global efforts to force big greenhouse gas cuts elsewhere, even in places where the legal precedent it has set won’t directly apply.

“There have been a number of cases brought in the United States,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law. “It’s true that many of them have not been successful. It’s also true that what we see is following a trajectory very similar to tobacco litigation: You lose until you start winning.”

Related: Five Ways Pope Francis May Have Just Changed the Future of Climate Action

He said the Dutch court’s decision signals that “people are starting to win. There are a lot of good lawyers out there who’ll be looking to this case as a model and a source for new legal tools and strategies.”

Here are four things we expect to see as a result of the Dutch court’s ruling—as long as the environmentalists don’t lose on appeal:

1. Other European citizens will take their governments to court over weak action on global warming—and win.

“The fact that other governments aren’t acting as quickly doesn’t excuse the Dutch government from acting” according to the court ruling, said Moffett, “because it has responsibilities to its own citizens.”

Because around 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions originate with EU nations, getting those governments to take stronger action, faster, would have a big impact on curbing climate change’s worst impacts.

A case similar to the Dutch one is pending in Belgium, and one is in preparation in Norway, according to Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. “I think it will be heavily cited by the plaintiffs in Belgium,” he said. “And it may encourage some judges to act boldly, like the Dutch judges did.”

2. Activists will intensify their focus on local, regional, and national action.

“This case reflects the frustration, reality, and recognition of people around the world that governments are not acting fast enough,” said Moffett. “The United Nations climate treaty is now 22 years old and far from accomplishing even the modest goal it set out to accomplish.”

3. More investors will pull their money out of fossil fuels.

With oil, gas, and coal companies still among the world’s most richly valued assets, that may seem hard to imagine. But the Dutch court case is a clear signal “to people who are investing in the 20th century instead of the 21st that the legal risks of investing in fossil fuels are only going to increase,” Moffett said.

His words echoed another expert’s statement; Bill Hare of Climate Analytics told The New York Times that the ruling “has the potential to become a precedent whose effect will ultimately flow through to undermining the markets for coal, oil, and gas.”

4. A legal right to a healthy climate and environment will gain traction in the United States.

“The underlying principle” in the Dutch case “is that government has ‘duty of care’ to its citizens,” said Gerrard. Even though the ruling has no power in the U.S., it does have the effect of establishing “an overarching set of legal principles on climate change” that could work its way into American legal thinking.

Indeed, on Tuesday—one day before the Netherlands decision was announced—a county superior court in Washington state ordered the state’s Department of Ecology to reconsider a petition asking the agency to strengthen the state’s carbon emission reduction targets based on the latest climate science.

The agency had rejected the petition, stating that it would wait until after the Paris climate conference in December to revisit the targets. But the county court stated that this was not a valid reason to put the welfare of Washington state residents at potential risk.

The petitioners include eight children and their legal guardians, who are seeking to prove that they have the legal right to a stable climate.