New climate change lawsuit in Colombia part of growing, worldwide trend


The group of plaintiffs beside the Director of Dejusticia César Rodríguez.

Climate change threatens the fulfillment of human rights around the world and we are not doing nearly enough to stop it. The slow progress of global climate negotiations, and the failure of governments to advance their plans to tackle emissions and adapt to a warming world, have led climate advocates to turn to a new strategy – climate litigation.

According to a UN Environment Programme report, as of March 2017, there were 654 climate lawsuits filed in the United States and 230 other cases in the rest of the world. While most of these cases are concentrated in the global North, there have also been climate change lawsuits in countries such as IndiaSouth Africa, the Philippines and Pakistan.

Indeed, climate litigation has become a global trend as advocates push for action on climate change through the courts. In most cases, plaintiffs are suing governments for failing to comply with their climate-related goals, for not adopting ambitious emissions mitigation policies, or for approving particular projects that contribute to climate change.

According to Australian lawyer Sophie Marjanac, the prospects of these kinds of lawsuits is improving because of two factors. First, there is an increasing number of governments that have made specific commitments on climate action, allowing them to be held accountable to those targets. And second, climate science is improving which means it is becoming easier to attribute specific harms (e.g. extreme weather) to climate change, thus bolstering arguments for liability.

According to a UN Environment Programme report, as of March 2017, there were 654 climate lawsuits filed in the United States and 230 other cases in the rest of the world. 

Inspired by this wave of recent lawsuits, a Colombian NGO, Dejusticia, decided to support a legal action to tackle climate change and its devastating impacts on Colombia. The organization has a history of using strategic litigation as a way to highlight key national issues and to have a broader social impact.

This type of legal action has the potential of reaching the Constitutional Court, which in turn can hold accountable other branches of government for failing to guarantee Constitutional principles and fundamental rights. Such litigation can also stir public debate, and its effects may go beyond those of the case itself.

The case was launched by 25 young Colombians; they are suing the national government for failing to curb deforestation in Colombia’s Amazon region. Today, cattle ranching, the expansion of agriculture, and mining are driving the destruction of the Amazon forest in Colombia. The most recent data shows that the national deforestation rate increased by 44% in 2016. This is equal to 178,597 acres of forest loss, of which 39% was concentrated in the Amazon region.

The plaintiffs are arguing that deforestation is violating their constitutional right to a healthy environment, which in turn threatens their rights to life, water, food, and health. The case is launched by youth because as the future generation it is they who will have to face the impacts of climate change and deforestation. They come from 17 different municipalities in the country, which are most threatened as a result of climate change.

The plaintiffs include Yurshell Yanishey Rodríguez, a 23-year old environmental engineering student from the island of Providencia, the region in the country that is most at risk from climate change. By 2070, the temperature in the area will increase by 1.4° C and the rain volume will decrease by 32%.

Over a thousand kilometers away, another of the plaintiffs, Pablo Cavanzo Piñeros, a 13-year-old boy, lives in Bogota, where according to official projections, there will be an increase in temperature of 1.6°C by the year 2070.

There is an intrinsic connection between the Colombian Amazon and the water cycle that supplies the rest of the nation; deforesting one area could have a significant impact thousands of kilometers away.

The lawsuit demands that the government backs its international rhetoric on deforestation with concrete and effective actions on the ground. Not only is the destruction of forests the greatest source behind Colombia’s greenhouse gas emissions, but also a threat to local ecosystems and the populations that depend on them for their livelihoods.

The plaintiffs also demand that the government creates an inter-generational agreement on climate change – taking into account impacts on future generations – and outlining the measures that the government will adopt to reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Further, the lawsuit asks that this document will also include the adaptation and mitigation strategies each vulnerable municipality in the country will implement.

The plaintiffs believe that a court ruling in their favor will not be an exception, but part of a broader trend whereby advocates seek justice through climate change litigation. For example, in the Urgenda v. The Netherlands case, the Hague District Court found that the Netherlands government was not doing enough to meet its climate mitigation goals to avert the imminent danger of climate change.

The climate movement is evolving and, as it increases pressure on governments to act on climate change, it diversifies its toolkit and strategies to demand social change. Litigation is clearly one strategy worth pursuing.


A shorter version of this blog was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation News here.