Melting glaciers in the Andes threaten PeruMelting glaciers in the Andes are producing climate impacts in Peru. Photo credit: Brent Stirton/Getty Images

By Ucilia Wang

A Peruvian mountain guide convinced a German court on Monday that his climate lawsuit against a major power company has merit and should be allowed to proceed, a surprising turn in a case that had been dismissed by a lower court last year.

An appellate court in Hamm reversed that decision and revived an unusual lawsuit against RWE, Germany’s second-largest electricity producer. The suit, brought by 37-year-old Saul Luciano Lluiya, claims the utility is responsible for the impact of climate change in the Peruvian city of Huaraz, even though the company doesn’t operate in that country.

The case is also novel for targeting a single company. Other cases, in the U.S. and elsewhere, are seeking to hold a group of major fossil fuel producers accountable.

So far, fossil fuel companies have argued successfully that they can’t be held responsible for specific climate disasters because they weren’t alone in generating greenhouse gas emissions.

“The 5th civil chamber made legal history today. Its statement is clear,” Roda Verheyen, the plaintiff’s attorney for the plaintiff, said  after the hearing. “For the first time, a court has said that an emitter, as a contributor to climate change, must claim responsibility for the hazards associated with global warming. Now we have to prove that RWE is partially responsible for climate hazards in Huaraz. We have a long way to go, but we are very confident that we will prove a causal link.”

The hearing took place while countries around the world gathered for a U.N. conference on climate change in Bonn, Germany. A study released on Monday showed that global emissions are rising again after staying flat for three years, mostly a result of coal burning in China and India.

Lluiya sued RWE in 2015, contending that the company partly contributed to melting a glacier in the Andes Mountains that raised the level of a nearby lake and increased the likelihood of devastating floods to his home and his city of more than 120,000 people.

Lliuya, who is also a farmer, asked for $20,000 in compensation to help the local government build a dam for flood control.

The money amounts to roughly 0.5 percent of the project’s cost and corresponds with a study’s estimate that RWE has historically contributed to nearly 0.5 percent of carbon emissions worldwide since the start of the industrial age, said Julia Grimm, policy advisor for climate finance at Germanwatch, a nonprofit that is helping Lliuya publicize his case.

“Lawsuits such as this one will draw on the rapidly advancing field of climate attribution science, which now enables us to pinpoint just how much fossil fuel producers have contributed to rising seas, increasing global temperature, and a growing list of other impacts,” said Kathy Mulvey, climate accountability campaign manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The case against RWE will hinge on whether Lliuya can definitively tie RWE’s fossil fuel burning to the flooding risks of his hometown. The court said both sides have until Nov. 30 to provide further arguments, but then will likely announce hearings to hear evidence in the case.

“Communities and businesses are having to deal with very real costs and damages from climate change right now, whether from rising sea levels, wildfires, droughts, or other impacts,” said Vic Sher, partner at Sher Edling, which represents three California communities in climate suits against three dozen fossil fuel companies. “The science is clear that these consequences are being caused by greenhouse gas pollution. That’s why we are seeing more of these kinds of lawsuits in the U.S. and around the world.” 

RWE maintains that there’s no clear evidence that it caused a glacier to melt in another part of the world.

Due to the large number of global emissions of greenhouse gases from natural and anthropogenic sources and the complexity of the climate and its natural variability, RWE believes that it is not possible to legally attribute specific effects of a climate change to a single issuer,” said RWE in a statement after the court decision.

The company also pointed out its work on reducing emissions: “RWE has been making a significant contribution to security of supply for years. The company supports the German and European climate targets for the year 2050. The reduction of own CO2 emissions is a high priority for RWE. For this reason, the company has modernized its power plant park in recent years, that is, built new power plants, made existing facilities more efficient and shut down old ones.”