Activists are increasingly suing governments and companies to take action against climate change – and winning. Could this be a turning point?
David Schiepek, a student from the southern German state of Bavaria, has been involved in climate activism for around three years. "After all this time fighting, protesting and talking to politicians, I was losing hope a bit," the 20-year-old says. "I feel like my future is being taken away."
But in May this year, an unexpected event gave him a fresh sense of optimism. A lawsuit brought by a number of environmental NGOs, on behalf of a group of young activists, resulted in Germany's constitutional court ruling that the country's climate protection act must be amended to include more ambitious CO2 emissions reductions. The decision stated that the government's failure to protect the climate for future generations was unconstitutional.
"I saw that, finally, politicians can be put under pressure and forced to take measures against climate change," Schiepek says. "It really changed the way I see politics."
Now he is hoping to build on this ruling, which applies only to the federal government. He has been recruited by an NGO, along with other young people from around Germany, to bring similar cases against their local state governments. Technically, he is suing his state to take action on climate change.
The last few years have seen a snowballing of court rulings in favour of environmentalists around the world. The cumulative number of climate change-related cases has more than doubled since 2015, according to a report authored by Kaya Axelsson of Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute and colleagues. Just over 800 cases were filed between 1986 and 2014, while over 1,000 cases have been brought in the last six years, researchers Joana Setzer and Catherine Higham of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment found.
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