Companies are brought to court on climate change and pollution

With the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the courts may be the best hope for activists trying to combat climate change.

The Beam
Published in
5 min readDec 5, 2017


Key Stats:

  • 894: The number of climate change cases filed, in a total of 24 countries
  • 70%: Since 1988, the amount of total greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the 100 ‘Carbon Majors’
  • 1,450 Gigatonnes: The amount of global industrial emissions since 1751

Right now, we’re in the midst of a huge upward swing in the number of climate change related cases that are being filed. On the receiving end of the litigations are governments, individual companies, and in some cases groups of companies. The cases are being filed by everyone from groups of young people to human rights organisations, and the results may have far-reaching effects. With the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the courts may be the best hope for activists trying to combat climate change.

A report published by the United Nations Environment Programme reveals that a total of 894 cases from 24 different countries have been filed to date. That’s a fairly sizeable amount, and while the majority of cases have been filed in the US, the number of countries with climate cases has experienced a threefold rise since 2014. This figure could represent the start of an avalanche, setting precedents that pave the way for future litigation.

There have been some recent notable successes. Saul Luciano Lliuya, the Peruvian farmer suing German energy company RWE, won an appeal against an earlier decision that dismissed his case. He is claiming that as one of the leader emitters of carbon dioxide, RWE bears responsibility for the negative impact the resulting climate change is having on his hometown of Huaraz. Winning the appeal goes to show that his claim has merit, and is an example of an attempt to hold an individual company to account.

Children suing the federal government

Then there is the case of the 21 children filing a suit against the federal government. They posit that the federal government has filed to protect their constitutional right to a stable climate. The government filed a petition earlier in the year in an attempt to thwart the case. This was denied, and oral arguments are due to be heard on December 11. To successfully hold the federal government to account in this way would be monumental, and may follow in the footsteps Urgenda, who successfully sued the Dutch government for their failure to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby endangering citizens.

In what is perhaps the most interesting case, the Commission of Human Rights in the Philippines is targeting 47 of the major companies responsible for carbon emissions. The 47 companies are part of the group known as the ‘carbon majors’, and is based on data collated by renowned researcher Richard Heede. The research, published in the Climatic Change journal, shows that a two thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions made since the industrial revolution have came from just 90 companies.

The complaint from CHR states that these carbon majors have violated the human rights of millions of people living in the Philippines. Man-made global warming has resulted in the frequency of deadly weather events such as cyclones increasing, and this global warming is the result of greenhouse emissions primarily from major companies such as ExxonMobil, BP and Chevron. This case represents the first time that a human rights body has made an effort to assign responsibility for the impact of climate change to private companies.

The common ground of tobacco and fossil fuels

This is where parallels between the tobacco industry and the fossil fuel industry can be most effectively drawn. The overarching claim is that the fossil fuel industry was aware of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change from at least the late 1980s. However, they did not act upon the information, and in fact actively sought to discredit it. They have put their own self-interests ahead of the safety of the planet and as a result have put life on earth at risk. This is similar to how tobacco companies suppressed information on the health risks of smoking, and instead continued to market and promote cigarettes to the public.

From the mid-1950s until 1994, many individuals attempted to sue the tobacco companies for their practices, but were wholly unsuccessful. It was only when states started litigation against the major tobacco manufacturers that things started to change. The four largest tobacco companies, known as the original participating manufacturers, were effectively sued by more than 40 states for the effect their product had on the public health. These OPMs became known as ‘the majors’, and in 1998 they entered into a Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement that saw them agree to pay out $206 billion over 25 years.

In this sense, the tobacco ‘majors’ are analogous to the ‘carbon majors’. These carbon majors knew the ill effects of carbon emissions, but ignored and suppressed the information and continued to make huge profits. Now people are trying to hold them to account by taking them to court, and it’s about time.

One thing we need to stay mindful of is how much of a fight the tobacco industry put up. It took many years and many unsuccessful attempts before they were eventually forced to pay. Let’s hope this current wave of court cases can inspire quicker action and change, before it’s too late.

Further Reading: Related Start Ups and Organizations

  • CARBON Analytics (http://www.co2analytics.comSocial: transforms a company’s accounting data into a highly visual, actionable carbon footprint analysis)
  • Landmapp ( Landmapp is a delivering affordable land rights documentation to rural communities)
  • WattStrat ( WattStrat develops a simulation platform for local authorities and the energy sector to forecast or anticipate trends in the energy consumption and production at national, regional and local levels)
  • WikiHouse Foundation ( WikiHouse Foundation is a non-profit organization that holds knowledge in common WikiHouse open knowledge)
  • aqualligence (climate-kic) ( Water contamination alert service)

This series of articles has been prepared with the support of our partner Viessmann — they’re celebrating 100 years of their company this year (2017) and are actively involved in positively shaping the next 100 years.



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