Record number of climate lawsuits target governments and corporations for misleading claims and environmental failures

A surge in climate lawsuits holds governments and corporations accountable, with notable successes in challenging misleading climate claims and failing to meet environmental obligations.

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A record number of climate lawsuits were filed globally in 2023, targeting both governments and corporations. According to a new report by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, at least 230 new climate cases were filed last year. This surge in legal action reflects a growing trend of holding entities accountable for their roles in climate change, despite a slight slowdown in the growth rate of new cases.

The Grantham Research Institute’s annual report provides a comprehensive assessment of climate litigation trends. Report authors Joana Setzer and Kate Higham noted that while the number of climate lawsuits expanded less rapidly than in previous years, the trend suggests a consolidation of strategic litigation efforts in areas anticipated to have high impact. This consolidation has not deterred the spread of climate litigation to new countries, with cases filed for the first time in Panama and Portugal in 2023.

Climate lawsuits encompass various types of legal actions, with “climate-washing” cases emerging as one of the most rapidly expanding areas of litigation. These cases challenge companies and governments over misinformation or misleading climate claims. Nearly 50 new climate-washing cases were filed in 2023 alone, with more than 70 percent of completed cases decided in favor of the challengers. This trend highlights the increasing scrutiny on entities that attempt to downplay their environmental impact or overstate their climate commitments.

Climate litigants have also broadened their targets beyond the fossil fuel sector. Cases are now being launched against airlines, financial services firms, and food and beverage companies. The report indicates a potential rise in litigation challenging governments’ net-zero targets, reflecting growing dissatisfaction with the pace and adequacy of governmental climate actions.

The United States remains the leader in climate litigation, with a total of 1,745 lawsuits, including 129 new cases in 2023. The United Kingdom, Brazil, and Germany follow with significant numbers of cases. Notably, older cases filed in Hungary and Namibia were identified for the first time, bringing the total number of countries with recorded climate cases to 55.

Notable cases in 2023 include a landmark ruling by a Montana court, which held that the state had violated the rights of young people by failing to consider the climate effects of oil and gas infrastructure. This decision could serve as a model for using scientific arguments and evidence to overcome legal hurdles in similar cases. The ruling, however, was decided on narrow grounds and is currently on appeal before the Montana Supreme Court.

Polluter pays lawsuits, a category capturing nearly two dozen cases from local governments seeking compensation from the oil and gas industry for their role in climate change, have also gained traction. These cases are moving into the discovery phase, where thousands of pages of internal documents are being released to plaintiffs and the public. This process is expected to result in significant changes in the political debate around the defendants.

The report introduces a new category of “transition risk” cases, filed against corporate directors and officers for managing climate risks inadequately. An example includes the shareholders at the Polish utility Enea, who approved a decision to bring a case against former directors for planned investments in a new coal-fired power plant. Additionally, six “turning off the taps” cases challenge the financing of projects not aligned with climate action, with 33 such cases filed since 2015.

Despite the surge in climate litigation aimed at advancing climate action, the report notes that not all lawsuits are aligned with this goal. Nearly 50 of the cases filed in 2023 appear to be using legal tactics to obstruct climate action. One example is a consumer protection lawsuit from Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti against investment giant BlackRock, alleging false or misleading statements about the extent to which environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors played a role in the firm’s investment strategies.

The ESG backlash in U.S. climate litigation is out of step with trends elsewhere in the world. However, the Montana court’s landmark ruling and other significant cases demonstrate the potential for climate litigation to drive substantial changes in climate governance. The Grantham report underscores that whether climate litigation is advancing or hindering climate action remains difficult to determine. While some cases have had lasting impacts on domestic climate governance, the long-term implications of other types of cases, such as climate-washing lawsuits, remain unclear.

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