by Einass Bakhiet, Emil Beddari, Phoebe Harris, Jasper Humpert and Sara Cordovez Lopez (MSc/MPhil in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance)
Three young people, Marina, Adetola, and Jerry are taking the UK government to court. Along with climate litigation movements gaining momentum worldwide, their case connects the government's domestic human rights law with its international climate obligations. They argue that UK obligations under the 1998 Human Rights Act require government to regulate finance so that it's aligned to the 2015 Paris Agreement temperature limit. On 12 December 2020, they sent their 'letter before action' to mark 5 years of the Paris Agreement.
Their commitment to their communities, their generation, and our planet drives them to bring the UK government to judicial review, standing alongside communities of resistance of the Majority World, who for centuries have fought for their right to life against extractivist and exploitative industries. These exploitative relations disproportionately affect the Global Majority, who represent over 80% of the world's population and 13.8% of the UK's population.
This is a case for young people and for marginalised communities resisting the violence of unchecked and profit-driven climate change. This is a case against dispossession, degradation and extinction. This is a case of more-than-climate litigation.
"[These diaspora youth] argue that UK obligations under the 1998 Human Rights Act requires it to regulate finance so that it's aligned to the 2015 Paris Agreement temperature limit … This is a case of more-than-climate litigation."
The UK Government breaks climate promises
When the UK government adopted the 2015 Paris Agreement, they committed to keeping global warming to well below 2°C (aiming for 1.5°C). As a historically high consumer of world resources, the UK agreed to be a leader in this process.
Following the spread of Covid-19, government plans to 'Build Back Better' present a unique opportunity to fulfil Paris commitments. However, the UK is lending billions to industries that are fuelling the climate damage they are supposedly committed to halting. Recently, airlines, car companies, and oil services have received billions with no climate stipulations: £1bn has been granted for a new gas project in Mozambique and £27bn committed to increase UK road capacity, against the advice of the Committee on Climate Change.
"the UK is lending billions to industries that are fuelling the climate damage they are supposedly committed to halting"
While the Paris Agreement requires the UK to keep financial flows consistent with 2°C warming, the FTSE 100 Index is on track to 3.9°C. With both the Ministry of Defence and the Environment Agency preparing for 3.5-4°C warming, the UK government is accepting runaway climate change. This is fundamentally incoherent with its obligations within the Human Rights Act, as it accepts likely bereavement for diasporic citizens with families abroad.
2°C is a human right
We do not know exactly what a 3.5-4°C warmer planet would be like, but we know it will be uncontrollable and disruptive, and that its effects will be uneven (see also: The Observer (2020) The heat is on over the climate crisis. Only radical measures will work. 18 May). It is the human rights of the poor, marginalised and oppressed that will suffer most. Consequently, regulating financial flows to be consistent with a well below 2°C target is a critical human rights obligation.
Litigation as climate activism
Grassroots litigation has become a key way to fight back when governments ignore their climate promises, with more than 140 cases worldwide in 2019 (and a total 1,444 to date; see also: de Wit et al. (2020) Climate Change Litigation Update. Norton Rose Fulbright.). Past cases like Urgenda v Netherlands, and the current Portuguese Youth v 33 countries, show that the overwhelming evidence for catastrophic effects of runaway climate change is moving pollution from being a political choice to becoming a legal issue.
"the overwhelming evidence for catastrophic effects of runaway climate change is moving pollution from being a political choice to becoming a legal issue"
The three claimants in this case are working with Plan B, who previously won against the UK government over the expansion of Heathrow airport.
Legal responsibility for climate change
The UK government is violating its obligations to ensure the Right to Life and the Right to Family Life for its citizens guaranteed by the Human Rights Act, especially for those belonging to diaspora communities. However, this is not straightforward to determine legally: cause and effect of climate change is difficult to determine, and states have only recently started to document emissions.
However, we cannot afford to wait for perfect climate accounting. Climate litigation shares similarities with asbestos-related court cases, where it can take 10-40 years for symptoms to appear. The government must not repeat the same mistakes now, and must act despite some uncertainty.
Moving beyond democracy?
The question of public accountability is a central aspect of the fight for more-than-climate justice. There is a shared feeling among climate activists and social justice groups that contemporary forms of liberal democracy have failed to efficiently combat climate change: administrations across the political spectrum are outwardly committed to climate action, but fail to act accordingly, and there is a lack of legally binding, international agreements.
"contemporary forms of liberal democracy have failed to efficiently combat climate change"
With traditional modes of public accountability failing, grassroots litigation movements are growing. This case is therefore not only a judgement on whether the UK government has failed to protect its citizens' human rights from runaway climate change, but also a verdict on whether more-than-climate litigation can be a useful tool in fixing broken democracies.
Young people and communities of resistance all over the world are mobilising in the fight against ecocide and genocide. Marina, Adetola and Jerry are showing how more-than-climate litigation in the UK is a way to do just that.
This blog was written by MSc/MPhil in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance students Einass Bakhiet, Emil Beddari, Phoebe Harris, Jasper Humpert and Sara Cordovez Lopez as part of a final assignment for the Governance, Politics and Policy module that asked students to research a topic of their choice, within the broad remit of the Governance, Politics and Policy themes, and to create a video maximum 5 minutes in length accompanied by a blog which further outlined the topic.
The opinions expressed in the video and this blog are those of the students and participating individuals only - they do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Geography and the Environment or the University of Oxford.