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How to bring climate justice centrestage

How to bring climate justice centrestage

Climate litigation becomes more effective when the Constitution reflects and drives the need for climate action.

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Last Updated : 17 June 2024, 20:39 IST
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Climate change never seems to leave the news headlines. Not a day passes without climate extremes striking somewhere in the world, with severe consequences for human society, infrastructure, and nature. Karnataka and large parts of India have experienced unprecedented droughts, water crises, and heat stress in recent weeks, months, and years. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), temperature records have been broken on a global scale during 2023 and the early months of 2024. 

Globally, the United Nations Framework on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement aim to stabilise mean global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, but the world has already crossed 1.2 degrees Celsius and may breach the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next 15 to 20 years with unprecedented consequences. At the national level, India has submitted the Nationally Determined Contribution to the UN, which outlines actions to address climate change through mitigation and adaptation actions. The Karnataka government has prepared a state action plan on climate change. However, both plans lack funding and institutional support. One option for citizens and civil society is to seek judicial interventions to force national and state governments to take climate change seriously and implement adaptation actions. Recently, the Supreme Court of India made a monumental decision on climate action.

The Supreme Court granted citizens, for the first time since Independence, a constitutionally enforceable human right against the adverse impacts of climate change. In Ranjit Singh vs. Union of India, March 2024, the petitioner filed a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution to seek direction for the preservation of the Great Indian Bustard, classified as a critically endangered species.

While considering the matter, the Court extensively explored the alarming consequences of climate change and the responsibility of the State to protect people as well as wildlife from its impacts. The Court declared that: (a) Article 21, which deals with the fundamental right to life and personal liberty; (b) Article 14, enshrining the fundamental right to equality; and (c) India’s obligation under the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, together “impose a duty on the State” in this regard. Where protection of human rights, the environment, ecology, and second-generation or third-generation rights are involved, “the courts should not be loathed to refer to international conventions.”

“The right to a healthy environment,”  hitherto perceived in generalised terms, the court said, includes access to clean and sustainable energy by “under-served communities” who are already affected “by factors such as air pollution... rising temperatures, droughts, shortages in food supplies due to crop failure, storms and flooding, and water shortages in particular areas. It is the poorer communities who suffer more than the richer ones.” As the havoc caused by change increases year after year, it becomes necessary “to articulate this as a distinct right,” recognised by Articles 14 and 19. Significantly, the Court drew attention to Articles 48A and 51A in the Directive Principles of State Policy, which, although not justiciable, recognise the importance of the environment that becomes a right in other parts of the Constitution. 

While judicial action is necessary to issue directions to governments and municipalities lacking in discharging their obligations, any citizen, anywhere, can now file a writ petition to the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution. Climate litigation, which is ‘pivotal’ to tackling climate change, will be even more effective where the constitutions themselves drive and reflect the need for climate action. As of 2022, at least 12 countries, including Thailand, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Algeria, had amended their constitutions to provide for dedicated climate clauses on mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. The courts’ directions can thus be more targeted. India will do well to consider such clauses as part of ‘umbrella legislation,’ as the court suggested. That will help a majority of the citizens confront failed waste management, lack of drainage, and sewerage disposal, all of which form part of the ‘right to a healthy environment’. 

Courts in other countries have taken decisions and forced governments to take action on the climate change front. In its ruling in April 2024, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) states that Switzerland has a responsibility under the European Convention for Human Rights (ECHR) to combat climate change effectively to protect the human rights of its citizens. The European Court also directed the Swiss government to take adequate measures to combat climate change and protect its citizens’ health from risks associated with excessive heat. The Urgenda Foundation and a group of 900 Dutch citizens sued the Dutch government to force the state to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The Hague District Court (in 2015) determined the Dutch government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% (compared to 1990) by 2020 to fulfil its duty of care to protect Dutch citizens against danger caused by climate change. On appeal, the Hague Court of Appeals (in 2019) upheld the district court’s decision that the Netherlands is breaching its duty of care by “failing to pursue a more ambitious reduction” of greenhouse gas emissions and agreed with the lower court’s finding that the State should reduce its emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020. 

In 2023, a German court found the government’s policy to mitigate climate change to be unlawful on several points, and ordered Berlin to take emergency action. In New Zealand, a case was launched against seven of the country’s largest polluters and fossil fuel producers in 2020, claiming injury from their ongoing emissions. Further, the Supreme Court ruled that a citizen has the right to sue the seven big polluters for their role in causing climate change, and the Court found that these big polluters may be liable for the harm their climate pollution causes.

Thus, in many more countries, citizens and civil society organisations are suing governments, municipal corporations, and industry to take actions to address climate change and even pay compensation in cases of damages. We are sure the courts in India will also take pro-active action by forcing the state and national governments to take climate action on an urgent basis. 

(B K Chandrashekar is a former minister and Speaker in Karnataka and Ravindranath is a retired professor of Indian Institute of Science and climate expert)

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