A group of Dutch citizens headed to court this week in a bold effort to hold their government accountable for its inaction over climate change.
The case, which opened at The Hague on Tuesday, was first filed by the Urgenda Foundation, a sustainability group, and 900 co-plaintiffs in the Netherlands in 2013.
The plaintiffs' lawyers argue that the current policies of the Dutch government are insufficient to halt climate change, and that the government is thus illegally endangering its citizens. They are asking the court to force the Netherlands to reduce its carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, a far greater reduction than the government is currently aiming for.
The stakes are high for the Netherlands. Rising sea levels are a major concern for the low-lying country, where 60 percent of gross domestic product is produced below sea level.
The case also has the potential to set a stunning legal precedent -- that governments are required under human rights law to protect their citizens from climate change.
The idea came from Dutch lawyer Roger Cox, whose book Revolution Justified argues that the judiciary must force governments into action on climate change. “You cannot ruin your world and accept that this climate change will have human rights infringement effects all over the world and then decide that there’s no role for the law to play,” Cox told Pacific Standard this week.
The court is expected to rule within six months, according to The Guardian.
As Michael B. Gerrard, a professor of environmental law at Columbia University, explained to Vice News on Thursday, several similar attempts in the U.S. have ended in failure. "Who knows whether something will emerge that will inspire some U.S. judges," Gerrard said.
The case has already inspired some in Europe. A Belgian group called Climate Case is preparing a similar class action suit against the Belgian government, "because we do not want to organize a farewell party for humanity," the group says on its website.
"We are doing this because we love our country, the Belgians and our children," one of the group's founders, Serge de Gheldere, says on the Climate Case website. "Consider it as a lawsuit of love."