Canada's youth climate lawsuit says climate impacts like wildfires demand stronger climate actionWith wildfire smoke bringing a serious health hazard to Canadian cities like Vancouver, a group of young people is suing the government for stronger action on climate change. Photo credit: Don MacKinnon/AFP/Getty Images
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By Karen Savage

Attorneys representing young Canadians suing the government for insufficient action on climate change told the Superior Court of Quebec on Thursday that their suit meets the legal criteria necessary to proceed.

Canadian courts require lawsuits to meet certain legal hurdles before moving forward. Attorneys for the young people argued that the suit is valid and the allegations, if proven in a trial, would justify the conclusions being sought. The court’s decision is expected in the coming months.

Plaintiffs in the suit, which was organized by ENnvironnement JEUnesse (ENJEU) on behalf of all Quebeckers aged 35 and under, allege Canada’s greenhouse gas reduction targets are not ambitious enough to avoid devastating climate change. They also allege that Canada’s inaction is violating the fundamental rights of young people under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Plaintiffs are asking the court to order the Canadian government to invest $100 for every citizen under 35, approximately $340 million, into a fund to be used to address climate change. They also want the Canadian government to adopt more appropriate greenhouse gas reduction targets.

“Canada needs a target consistent with climate science to protect our health, our safety and our lives, and that of future generations,” said Catherine Gauthier, executive director of ENJEU.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to reduce the country’s emissions, as promised to the Paris Climate Agreement. But he also supports continued drilling in the oil sands of Alberta and even authorized the government to buy the troubled Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan to ensure its expansion project is completed.

Meanwhile, the country increasingly battles the impacts of climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Forest fires exacerbated by global warming have forced the evacuation of at least 11,000 Canadian residents in the past month, closing schools and stretching already thin firefighting resources. Smoke from the fires, which can trigger asthma and other respiratory conditions, has stretched from Alberta to the United States, covering millions of square miles.

“The government of Canada has signed and ratified the Paris agreement, but it has no roadmap to achieve its commitment and we are still using an old conservative target that is grossly inadequate to address the climate crisis,” Gauthier said.

The Canadian suit is one of several around the world in which residents are trying to compel their governments to take urgent climate action.

A coalition of nearly 50 Italian organizations announced on Wednesday that it intends to sue the Italian government over what they allege is inadequate climate action by the country.

In the Netherlands, a court ruled that the government must reduce emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020. The verdict in the landmark case, Urgenda v. Netherlands, was upheld during an initial appeal but the Dutch government is appealing the ruling to The Netherlands’ Supreme Court.

In Ireland, an environmental group is asking the court to order the government to rewrite its climate plan, alleging that it is not aggressive enough to protect Irish citizens from climate change and is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Our forests are burning, our houses are flooded, people are dying from heat waves, species are going extinct, people are crying and suffering … but Canada continues to act irresponsibly,” said plaintiff Zy St-Pierre-Bourdelais.  

The young plaintiffs say their goal is to force the Canadian government to work  to ensure a livable climate for themselves and all young people.

“The government of Canada is having a climate-friendly discourse, while at the same time investing public funds in the most polluting energy, the tar sands,” said Alix Ruhlman, a 23-year-old plaintiff in the suit.

“The climate crisis is real, and Canada needs to take its responsibilities for all Canadians’ present and future.”

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