Citizens Of The Netherlands Suing Their Government Over Inaction On Climate Change

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A coalition of 900 Dutch citizens has taken the government of the Netherlands to court over its inaction with regard to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change.

groningen_city_center_6_This represents (arguably) the first time ever that a national government has been taken to court over existing human rights with regard to climate change — as well as the first time that a group of citizens in Europe has attempted to hold its government legally responsible for inefficient/ineffective climate policies.

Public arguments for the proceedings are set to begin fairly soon in the Netherlands, following the dubbing by the Dutch press of the case as a “landmark legal case.”

“What we are saying is that our government is co-creating a dangerous change in the world,” stated Roger Cox, a legal adviser for the plaintiffs. “We feel that there’s a shared responsibility for any country to do what is necessary in its own boundaries to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions as much as is needed.”

The goal of the case is reportedly to force the government of the Netherlands to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 25–40% (relative to 1990 levels) by the year 2020. The achievement of these figures would put the country in line with the reductions outlined by the IPCC as necessary for developed nations if there’s to be a 50% chance of avoiding a 2° Celsius rise in average global temperature.

As it stands, the European Union has verbally committed to cutting emissions 40% by the year 2030 — but no specific commitments were made by the Netherlands, which claims that it will simply adopt whatever (likely anemic) international agreement that results from the Paris climate talks scheduled for late 2015.

Climate Progress provides some more information:

To the Dutch citizens who are part of the class action, that promise isn’t enough. In 2012, the sustainability-focused Urgenda Foundation sent a letter to the government demanding more immediate action on climate change. When they received no response, Urgenda began looking for citizens to support a court case against the Dutch government. A year later, Urgenda, along with nearly 900 co-plaintiffs, filed a case against the Dutch government.

The plaintiffs represent a wide cross-section of Dutch society, hailing from a diverse set of age groups and professions. One of the more notable plaintiffs, Joos Ockels, is the wife of Wubbo Ockels, the first Dutch citizen in space and a committed climate advocate until his death last year.

Nearly a quarter of the Netherlands is below sea-level, which forced the country to become an early adopter of climate adaptation strategies and renewable energy. But while the adaptation strategies meant to shield the country from rising sea level and more frequent storms are still in place, it has begun to fall behind when it comes to clean energy. According to the International Energy Agency, the Netherlands lags behind much of the European Union in renewable energy sources. In 2013, 4.5% of energy consumed in the Netherlands came from renewable sources, far below the country’s goal of getting 14% of its energy from renewables by 2020. According to Dutch News, Urgenda claims that the Dutch government has acknowledged that its actions are “insufficient” to prevent the dangers associated with a warming world.


“The Netherlands is therefore knowingly exposing its own citizens to dangerous situations, in which they and their children will suffer serious hardship,” Urgenda stated. “The Dutch Supreme Court has consistently upheld the principle that the government can be held legally accountable for not taking sufficient action to prevent foreseeable harm. Urgenda argues that this is also the case with climate change.”

Given the relatively recent launch of the Oslo Principles on Global Climate Change Obligations — holding that governments are legally obligated to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change — things are looking pretty good for the new case. Especially when you consider that of the Oslo Principles’ primary supporters was the advocate-general of the Netherlands Supreme Court, Jaap Spier. As per the BBC, Spier has been previously quoted by the Dutch press as stating that the courts would be an appropriate place to spur countries to adopt strong climate change mitigation policies.

Similar initiatives are currently underway in Belgium as well, reportedly. It’s an interesting strategy — and considering how much most governments are dithering on the matter, certainly something to be commended.

That said, I can’t help but wonder what it is that many of the people supporting this are thinking — isn’t it obvious that effectively addressing climate (cutting carbon emissions drastically) will require significant changes to most common modern lifestyles? The sort of lifestyle that many in the Netherlands live, for example, is incredibly energy intensive (even when you factor in the ubiquity of biking there, amongst other things) — even if the means of energy generation switched entirely to renewables, there is still a lot of energy being used to support these modern lifestyles. Truly effective action would require a complete rearranging of resource and energy use on the individual level; it isn’t as simple as simply changing government policies — people would have to do with less.

This is something that I have a hard time believing that many people would accept. The image that I have coming to my mind right now is of a big gas guzzling SUV with one person in it driving around with a bumper sticker on it that advertises how “green” the beliefs of the person driving it are — which is something that I actually saw, a substantial number of times, for those wondering, while living in the US Northwest. While many people are supportive of action on climate change, how deep is that support? Enough to enact truly effective change? Or simply a fashion statement?

Image Credit: Public Domain

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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