Citizens must "flood the courts" in fight for climate justice: economist

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world faces a ticking time bomb in the form of global warming, and recent disasters caused by extreme weather should motivate individuals to urgently seek “climate justice”, said leading U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The U.N. special adviser urged citizens to “flood the courts” with legal cases demanding the right to a safe and clean environment, and to pursue major polluters such as big oil companies and negligent governments for liability and damages.

“Who’s going to rebuild? Who’s going to pay?” asked Sachs, referring to a spate of disasters, including floods and storms, which scientists say are being exacerbated by climate change.

Economic justice is important because communities are not impacted equally by the effects of climate change, he said in a lecture at the London School of Economics on Tuesday evening.

“The poor are always extraordinarily vulnerable to shocks because they have no buffer,” said Sachs. “They don’t have a voice in public policy, so when disasters hit they’re alone.”

Referring to Hurricane Maria, which pummeled the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico last month, cutting power and crippling the lives of 3.4 million residents, Sachs said the Caribbean region had “caused almost nothing of the devastation” but was paying for the damage from increasingly extreme weather.

Instead of patching things up after each crisis, individuals should fight for a legal regime that can respond to predictable and frequent threats, said the Columbia University professor.

Deep-pocketed oil companies - from Exxon Mobil to Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell - should bear the bulk of the legal blame and responsibility, but legal tools could also be used to seek remedy from governments, he argued.

The best-selling author said this approach would lead to tighter regulation of the fossil fuel industry, whose products emit heat-trapping gases.

“We need a right to climate safety firmly and clearly stated,” he added.

Sachs pointed to the $18.7 billion settlement agreed after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - under which the company paid penalties to the U.S. government and five states - as a model for climate justice cases.

If a causal link with climate change can be proved, the proceeds from such lawsuits could pay for costly adaptation methods such as retrofitting buildings, re-housing communities and shifting the energy sector toward renewables, he said.

The Paris Agreement goes some way toward tackling the issue of climate justice by recognizing the importance of addressing loss and damage associated with climate change, but lacks any enforcement mechanism for liability or compensation, Sachs said.

The United States, under President Donald Trump, has given notice it wants to withdraw from the international accord to curb global warming, a move heavily criticized by Sachs.

Climate lawsuits should borrow from legal models that held tobacco firms liable for health damage from smoking, he said, predicting a rise in class actions targeting major oil firms.

In September, cities including San Francisco and Oakland filed separate lawsuits against five oil companies using the “public nuisance” doctrine, seeking billions of dollars to protect against rising sea levels.

Meanwhile in Oregon, teenagers have sued the federal government in a landmark case known as “Our Children’s Trust”, asserting that government policies have contributed to climate change, violating their constitutional right to life, liberty and property.

Sachs expects such cases to become commonplace, particularly in the United States, as more individuals’ lives are turned upside down by climate-related disasters.

“We’re in a very difficult race against time,” he said.