Legal Action on Climate Change

LEGAL ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE

Public authorities at risk of being sued

Litigation on climate change has been with us for some time, with the first significant US court decision in 1990 and the first Australian one in 1994. Australian court cases claiming negligence against producers or users of fossil fuels are likely to face considerable obstacles, but legal actions for failure to adapt to climate change, particularly against public authorities, could fare better. One might challenge, for example, the appropriateness of development approvals in flood-prone or bushfire-prone areas.

Private nuisance cases could be possible where a public authority undertakes works to reduce the effects of climate change. If such works actually make the problem worse, or shift the problem to other locations, affected landowners could possibly take the public authority to court in a case based on private nuisance laws.

In the US, cases of public nuisance have been brought by governments suing industrial contributors to global warming. In the past the courts had dismissed such cases, but recently they have reconsidered and decided that one against American Electric can be examined by a court of law.

In Alaska a native village has begun a public nuisance case against oil, power and coal companies. The village suffers from the melting of Arctic ice, which used to protect its coasts from erosion. Current erosion of coastal areas means that the village will have to be relocated or abandoned, and the villagers are seeking monetary damages from the companies for their contribution to climate change.

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