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Sarah v govt climate litigation – perspectives from court

Written By: - Date published: 6:30 am, June 28th, 2017 - 19 comments
Categories: climate change, disaster, Environment - Tags: , , ,

What to Do When Your Future’s at Risk and Your Government Doesn’t Care

(Huffington Post)

New Zealand is the latest country to be sued for its failure to act on climate

On June 8, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken observed, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” With these words, a case brought by a group of 21 young people against the government for failing to protect their right to a safe climate was granted permission to proceed to trial. Her decision came nearly two years after the Urgenda Foundation sued the Dutch government and won – a decision which ordered the government to reduce emissions in line with scientific recommendations, by 25% from 1990 levels by 2020.

Although the governments of both countries are working to overturn these decisions, climate lawsuits are spreading rapidly around the world. Cases have been brought against the governments of Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, and Pakistan (not to mention countless others targeting corporate actors).

Next up is New Zealand…

Waikato law student Sarah Thomson is taking the NZ government to court over the gross inadequacy of its climate change targets. Background post is here (including the case documents). The court case started this week.

New Economics Movement co-founder Deirdre Kent wrote about her impression of the first day,

The argument that New Zealand is small therefore we don’t need to do much was thoroughly demolished, especially with Salmon’s suggestion that if the boat is sinking everybody bails, no matter how small their bucket.

He took us through the difference between the target of 1.5 degrees vs 2 degrees of warming. Reality strikes when you realise that, although he said he wouldn’t exaggerate, he used the word ‘catastrophic’. Yes beyond two degrees it is catastrophic and James Renwick had reminded us outside that it is only five years till we get to 1.5 degrees. David Salmon persuasively argued that you shouldn’t rely on technologies that don’t exist yet to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He said it was like telling someone to keep smoking in the hope someone would invent a cure for lung cancer. One cannot predict inventions. Therefore no real weight can be put on that hope.

He impressed on the judge the comprehensiveness of the AR% [attributable risk] summary of climate change knowledge worldwide The sheer size and scale of the work was noted and the fact that it is always out of date before it is published. He sai, “I don’t want to make you read it all Your Honour, is scary reading about floods and famines, mass migrations and conflicts and some of it is dry and detailed”. She replied, “I’ll be happy to read it”. He said,”Maybe not happy by the time you finish.”

My thoughts, as always, went to economics. Where were the economists in this court? I couldn’t see a soul What would they say if they were here? Yes, Salmon talked about Business-as-Usual scenario and I thought that even Helen Clark’s government did nothing to stop the intensification of dairy because it feared the economy wouldn’t grow enough and they would be out of government. And so we get agricultural emissions rising.

And Naomi Klein realised the economy was at war with the climate.

So I thought what would it really take to change the economic system from growth dependent to a healthy one? How many really want to face up to the money system and that the land tenure system (and therefore the tax system) simply have to change. It’s a big shift for people’s mindsets. What causes the growth imperative? It is the combination of privately owned land system with an interest-bearing debt money system controlled by private banks. A match made in hell. Maybe we have to get to hell before we wake up.

Opening arguments, from The Herald,

[Sarah’s] lawyer, Davey Salmon, today argued in the High Court at Wellington that the National Government was looking for reasons to delay taking action.

“No one wants to be the first nudist at the beach,” he said.

“We shuffle along with the crowd, but no one takes the first brave step.

“But every country needs to be bold and brave, even if the other countries aren’t yet. By behaving like this, we’re exacerbating delays from others.

“We must not hide behind the way in which our wealth is secured, or our relative size. Every city and country in the world can break it down into reasons why it should not act.”

Salmon said that the Government was wrong in its approach to the Paris Climate Accord, by treating two degrees of warming as a target rather than an absolute upper limit.

(my emphasis).

RNZ had a synopsis of the situation,

New Zealand has committed to reducing emissions by 11 percent on 1990 levels by 2030 as part of the Paris agreement. However, New Zealand’s most recent greenhouse gas inventory shows emissions in 2015 were 24.1 percent higher than 1990 levels.

IS at No Right Turn,

The case revolves around the Minister’s target-setting powers under sections 224 and 225 of the Climate Change Response Act and the degree to which they are governed by the UNFCCC (which the Act incorporates in its purpose and schedules). If the court concludes that the Minister’s power is strongly constrained by the UNFCCC and that (in light of that) her targets were irrational, she could be required to set new ones. There’s an analysis here by Otago law student Charles Owen, which suggests that the chances of that happening are not good – but I guess there’s only one way to find out. And at the least it’ll force the government to come clean about its target-setting process, and let us learn whether there was any improper purpose (e.g. adhering to the UNFCCC in name only) involved.

Final court day is today.


Moderator note – zero tolerance for climate change denial in comments. Bans will be given without warning. 

19 comments on “Sarah v govt climate litigation – perspectives from court ”

  1. When Sarah’s (future) children ask, “What did you do about climate change, mum?, she’ll have a great story to tell.

    • If she hopes to have future children that she can hold a conversation with, she better have them now, there just isn’t enough time left for 9 months incubation and 3-5 years education of the child
      Sorry to troll, if speaking the truth is trolling ?

      • Stunned Mullet 1.1.1


      • RedLogix 1.1.2

        Didn’t I see you driving around in a van with a VHEM sticker on it sometime in the 90’s Robert? How many more years are you going to waste making predictions that never quite come true?

    • Blade 1.2

      “What did you do about climate change, mum?, she’ll have a great story to tell.”

      You have to be kidding, right? Lets concentrate on the court case.

      What happens if she wins? What changes? Nothing in my opinion. This women is a law student…and she can’t work that out in advance? She must be a first year student.

      • weka 1.2.1

        If she wins the govt has to review the targets and reset them in line with international thinking on what is necessary. That’s really important.

      • RedLogix 1.2.2

        What changes? Nothing in my opinion.

        She’s already gotten CC more local media attention in two weeks than all other coverage this year.

        Besides here you are commenting about it.

        • Blade

          ‘She’s already gotten CC more local media attention in two weeks than all other coverage this year.’

          Only for people interested in CC. Most of us aren’t for a variety of reasons.

          Weka states:

          ”If she wins the govt has to review the targets and reset them in line with international thinking on what is necessary. That’s really important.”

          The problem here is the politics around CC is fluid. Most governments are scared of being seen as not towing the line regarding international
          consensus on CC. So they talk big, and do little. Like New Zealand.

          Trump cut through that pretense. So should we. If this women wins her case, the government will procrastinate in a variety of ways. By that time, new agreements with new targets will make any former targets obsolete.

  2. Ad 2

    Really helpful Weka.

    Would you mind re-posting the links to the actual submissions from both the Crown and Sarah Thompson? Makes for good context in the discussion.

    • weka 2.1

      Cheers. They’re in the original post linked above (have amended the post to show where).

  3. roy cartland 3

    What a hero. We’ll look back at this one day – and all of today’s idiotic detractors will ‘remember’ being on her side, like they all were with apartheid, women’s vote, springbok tour, children’s rights, etc.

  4. I cannot understand why, in this country , instead of seeing climate change as a real problem, (which it is ) why not also see it as an opportunity and a new challenge.

    Develop new technology , patent, and sell to the world.

    There are some brilliant minds in this country, I’m sure that with Govt backing, research and development institutions would relish the challenge to find the new technology to answer at least some of the problems.

  5. esoteric pineapples 5

    “Zero tolerance for climate change denial in comments. Bans will be given without warning.”

    Nearly every anthropomorphic climate change denier I have every encountered is male, white and over 40. I’m sure there are some who don’t fit that stereotype but barely one or two I have personally come across.

    I’ve developed my own totally unscientific theory for this which I call “The Men’s Shed Theory of Anthropomorphic Climate Change” which is basically an evolution of the principal of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Very often, the white male mind tends to assume that it’s point of view is innately the correct one. Mildly inquiring, it feeds information into its brain until it comes to its own conclusion based on its own logic. The fact that this disagrees with almost all qualified scientists means very little because the white male mind believes that whatever conclusion It comes to is undoubtedly the correct one.

    • RedLogix 5.1

      And yet probably a majority of climate scientists are white and male. Isn’t life complicated. 🙂

      I have this other theory that people who are NOT white and male are too stupid to care about anything as complicated as climate change one way or another. /sarc

  6. Matt 6

    There’s a saying: ‘The only thing worse than a lawyer…is a law student.’

    This isn’t about climate change. It’s about a jumped up self righteous law student looking to make a name for herself.

  7. Matt 7

    There’s a saying: ‘The only thing worse than a lawyer…is a law student.’

    This isn’t about climate change. It’s about a jumped up self righteous trainee lawyer looking to make a name for herself.

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