Peter Dejong / AP

Dutch lawsuit takes aim at government for failing to slow climate change

The suit, filed by the Urgenda Foundation, argues that protection from global warming is a human right

A Dutch environmental group went to court on Tuesday in the first public hearing of its landmark lawsuit against the Dutch government for failing to adequately address climate change.

The suit, filed by the Urgenda Foundation and backed by nearly 900 plaintiffs, calls for the Dutch government to reduce its emissions by 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels — an amount agreed to by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — by 2020. The suit is believed to be the first legal action to try to hold a government accountable for failing to live up to its emission-reduction targets.

Urgenda is arguing that the Dutch government has acted unlawfully by not “contributing its proportional share” to prevent global warming, breaking Dutch human rights and tort laws. The foundation hopes its lawsuit can set a precedent for citizens the world over to use existing laws to pressure their governments to act on climate change. Global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius, Urgenda argues, “will lead to a violation of fundamental human rights worldwide.”

The group’s case was bolstered late last month when governments, including the Netherlands, agreed to the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations. Those obligations outline governments’ legal responsibility to “avert harmful effects of climate change” on human rights grounds.

The case, Urgenda says on its website, is also the “first case in the world in which human rights are used as a legal basis to protect citizens against climate change.”

In an interview with Dutch newspaper Trouw last week, Jaap Spier, the advocate-general of the Dutch Supreme Court, implied he might endorse Urgenda’s approach. “Courts can force countries to adopt effective climate policies,” he said. “Court cases are perhaps the only way to break through the political apathy about climate change."

The lawsuit has drawn considerable attention in the Netherlands, in part because a number of Dutch artists and celebrities are among the plaintiffs. Hundreds of them are expected to show up for Tuesday’s public hearing, according to media reports.

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