Litigation is one tool leaders at the People’s Summit said they plan to leverage to hold governments and corporations accountable for climate change. Photo credit: United Nations
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By Dana Drugmand

International human rights leaders will deliver a new declaration on climate, rights and human survival to world leaders when they assemble this weekend for the United Nations climate action summit in New York and say they will hold governments and corporations most responsible for the climate crisis accountable through litigation and other actions.

The declaration was unveiled at the People’s Summit on Climate, Rights and Human Survival, held Wednesday at the New York University School of Law. The summit, which will conclude Thursday, was organized by Amnesty International, the Center for International Environmental Law, Greenpeace International, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU, the United Nations Human Rights Office, and the Wallace Global Fund. The goal is to catalyze a new global grassroots movement with human rights at the core of the call for climate justice.

“The climate crisis is a human rights crisis,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. “This declaration marks a new era of climate activism. Led by the youth and together with our allies, we will all take action and confront those responsible.”

Litigation is one tool that leaders at the People’s Summit said they plan to leverage to hold governments and corporations accountable. 

“They need to understand that we are now going to be using the full force of human rights law in coming after them,” said Kumi Naidoo, secretary general of Amnesty International, the world’s largest human rights organization. 


Naidoo said one such case already in process is the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights investigation of potential climate change-related human rights violations by 47 major fossil fuel corporations. That investigation came about following the massive death and destruction from super typhoon Haiyan, whichkilled thousands in the Philippines in 2013. The Commission is set to release its findings by the end of this year, and those findings could inform and inspire similar investigations and lawsuits against companies most responsible for climate change.

“They should know that the case they are facing in the Philippines is only the first case they’re going to face,” Naidoo said, adding that strategic litigation will become an increasingly important part of the strategy despite the expected uphill battle. 

“We are probably in the moment–as in the early days of tobacco litigation–where we’re going to lose lots of cases,” Naidoo said. The key is finding jurisdictions and courts that are receptive to the arguments and also having a swell of grassroots support behind the plaintiffs, he said.  “We need to have court cases where thousands and thousands are outside those courthouses waiting for judgment.” 

A central component of climate liability lawsuits is the claim that the fossil fuel industry, like other industries such as tobacco, lead paint and pharmaceuticals, long knew about the dangerous consequences of their products yet downplayed or outright denied that risk publicly in order to protect their profits. The new declaration explicitly references this point. “In particular, the fossil fuel industry has known about the impacts of its products for decades and failed to warn some of their investors, the public, communities, and other stakeholders, while simultaneously engaging in a sophisticated campaign of climate misinformation and denial.” 

ExxonMobil is already facing several lawsuits from investors, as well as from the State of New York over its alleged misrepresentation of climate risk. Trial in the New York case is scheduled to begin next month. Municipalities across the U.S. have filed climate liability suits against dozens of other fossil fuel companies, including Chevron, BP and Shell, seeking to hold the companies accountable for damages already done to their communities and to help pay for infrastructure improvements needed to protect their residents. 

In addition to fossil fuel companies whose product is directly causing the climate crisis, the financial industry and governments also have potential legal risk when it comes to climate change. Leaders at the People’s Summit said they would also target the institutions that are financing the fossil fuel industry. 

“Continuing to invest in fossil fuels is an incredible financial risk as well as a legal risk,” said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law. 

“If you continue to invest in fossil fuels and climate change…then you are investing in destruction and human rights violations on a global scale,” Muffett said. 

Governments could increasingly face climate lawsuits grounded in human rights law. The new declaration condemns the “failure of States to take adequate measures to mitigate climate change,” noting that, “This failure represents a violation of States’ human rights obligations.” 

“Governments have absolutely dropped the ball,” said Craig Mokhiber, office director at the New York United Nations Human Rights Office. 

The day before the declaration was unveiled, five U.N. human rights treaty bodies – institutions that monitor compliance with UN treaties – issued a collective statement confirming that States have legally binding obligations under international human rights treaties to prevent foreseeable harm resulting from climate change and to regulate private actors accordingly.  

Whether this understanding of legal obligations will lead to more ambitious commitments and action plans from governments at next week’s U.N. climate summit remains to be seen. What is clear is that the international human rights community is mobilizing around a new level of urgency and a new call for unity to address what Naidoo called “the biggest intergenerational human rights violation that we’ve ever seen.” 

“The world’s most urgent struggle needs the power and diversity that the global people’s movement for human rights can bring,” Naidoo said in a press statement

“We come with key constituencies, energy, and skills to the fight for climate justice. But we have been punching way below our weight so far,” he said.

“We want the Summit to help unleash the potential of the global human rights movement to protect present and future generations. United, we win.” 

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