In World First, a Court Reaffirms a Government's Responsibility to Act on Climate Change

Wind mills along the Rotterdam port.
Wind mills along the Rotterdam port.
Photo: Getty

We’re three weeks away from a major climate case going to trial in the U.S., and a new ruling in Europe could put a little wind in the plaintiff’s sails.

On Tuesday, judges upheld a landmark decision in the Netherlands that the government isn’t doing enough to address climate change. The appeals court ruled that the current plan to cut emissions to 17 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 wasn’t nearly enough given the scope of the climate crisis. In doing so, the court reaffirmed an earlier ruling that the Netherlands must cut greenhouse gas emissions at least 25 percent by 2020.

“Based on human rights, they say that not acting is not allowable anymore and we should act as soon as possible,” Marjan Minnesma, the director of Urgenda, said in a recorded statement.


Urgenda, a Dutch foundation focused on sustainability, brought the case with a summons in 2013. The group won the case in 2015, but the government appealed the decision. Tuesday’s result at a court in The Hague denied that appeal. 

Dennis van Berkel, a lawyer with Urgenda, told Earther this was the “first time that a world court had acknowledged governments have a legal duty to act against climate change. The court of appeals very clearly sets out danger involved and that these dangers are violating our human rights.”

The 25 percent emissions cut by 2020 is what van Berkel said was the bare minimum the government would have to do to keep global warming within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels. If it accepts the court ruling, that process would speed up substantially and would need to be ramped up even further to meet the more ambitious 1.5-degree Celsius goal.

While the Netherlands accounts for less than one percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, that doesn’t mean it’s exempt from action. As authors of the recently harrowing IPCC climate report remind us, it will take a million tiny actions to prevent catastrophe.


And the Netherlands faces an existential threat from climate change. Roughly half the country is within three feet of current sea levels and a quarter is below sea level. To deal with the frequently angry North Sea, the Dutch have engineered a system dykes, levees, and other flood barriers, but those could be swamped in the face of rising seas.

Beyond locking the Dutch government into taking a more proactive stance on climate change, the legal victory is a morale booster. Climate trials are popping up all over the world, and while some have been struck down, including a notable suit brought by California cities and counties against Big Oil, others are proceeding.


That includes one that started this week in Minnesota for activists known as the Valve Turners who shut down oil pipelines, which they argue they were morally compelled to do because of the threat climate change poses.

And later this month, a court will hear the arguments of 21 youth plaintiffs who have sued the U.S. government for allegedly infringing on their Constitutional rights by failing to address climate change. The outcome of the case will be closely watched since the U.S. has, under the Trump administration, taken to abdicating all responsibility for the mess it’s making.


“The Hague Court of Appeal’s decision affirms that government are liable for the human [fundamental] rights violations resulting from the dangerous climate situation they have created, and that courts will not allow governments to escape liability by hiding behind [narrow] technical legal arguments,” Our Children’s Trust, the group leading the kid’s climate suit, said in a statement to Earther.

But the outcome in the Dutch case could have a bearing on that trial and others beyond lifting spirits.


“What you see around the world is that courts are looking at each other and taking inspiration from other decisions,” van Berkel said.

Managing editor, Earther

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Here’s how to fuck with the Netherlands. First off, the old saw, “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” isn’t really true. Then remind them that a big chunk of its economy GHG emissions aren’t accounted for back at the homefront.

You remind them that about 80 percent or so of its’ economy is based on international exports of goods and services. Of that, a big chunk of trading is international shipping via planes and ships. It’s not like the “lower countries” of europe didn’t get a leg up on international shipping a while back and give rise to the merchant classes.

Then you tell them to comply to this suit. They’re getting off easy.

Then they can tell us Americans to come up with a reduction goal, too. Maybe have Royal Dutch Shell help us.

GHG emissions from international shipping is roughly in the ballpark at around in broad terms 2 to 5 percent of global emissions. Give or take. That’s a lot and will continue to rise. Brian covered that here on Earther. Maybe someone else did. Read Earther.