The Rise in Climate Change Litigation

If you turn on the news, you’re sure to see a story about climate change and its impact on our society. Climate change has gained significant traction as a key and divisive topic among the general public. According to the August 2021 Ipsos Issues Index, concerns over climate change have doubled to near-record highs.

With this increased public concern and interest has come a wave of lawsuits in various forms. Most climate change litigation has been filed before courts in the United States (1,841 cases as of May 2021), with the remaining filed in 39 other countries and 13 international or regional courts and tribunals (including the EU). As noted in a recent policy report about global trends in climate change litigation, “Globally, the cumulative number of climate change-related cases has more than doubled since 2015.” But what exactly are people suing for?

Different Types of Litigation With Different Objectives

With just about everything in today’s political arena being so divisive, it would only make sense for this combativeness to migrate over to the topic of climate change. Litigation involving new and existing climate change policies has seen an uptick over the past decade; some want to reinforce and bolster environmental movements, while others want to deter those, often citing a negative economic fallout as the reason.

These differing opinions have led to contrasting approaches to this type of litigation. There are two primary camps of climate change litigation: strategic and non-strategic litigation:

Strategic Litigation. These cases are filed for broader public visibility and/or as part of a political or social movement. As noted in the Global trends in climate change litigation: 2021 snapshot report, “the goals of the claimants in such cases will include advancing climate policies, creating public awareness, or changing the behavior of government or industry actors.” A notable number of these cases have targeted corporations.
Non-Strategic Litigation. These cases are typically filed to seek relief for isolated situations; however, non-strategic cases aren’t necessarily less important. In fact, they might spark a wave of strategic litigation.


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