“A world where many worlds fit”: Centering claimants’ stories in climate litigation

Credit: Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez / iStock

The Zapatistas’ political, moral, and spiritual vision of a more beautiful world is grounded in an Indigenous cosmology of un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos (“a world where many worlds fit”). The image recalls a pluriverse, a realm alive with existing and emerging ways of being, thinking, and doing. Many lawyers, activists, and storytellers understand  climate change as a crisis of imagination, too. If we accepted Elie Wiesel’s invitation to “see in every person a universe”,  could reimagining justice begin with listening to those in proximity to us who are facing climate injustice? For those aspiring to a practice of “rebellious lawyering” and critical legal empowerment for human rights, there are compelling practical, strategic, and moral reasons to center claimants’ stories of their experiences in strategic litigation on climate change. 


Stories of peril and possibility

Life stories told as “rights stories” are vessels of knowledge that play a central role in the “naming, blaming, and claiming” process for those experiencing injustice. Notably, storytelling is a form of protest. As Zora Neale Hurston warns, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Many people experiencing climate and human rights injustices refuse to be silent about their pain, choosing to share their stories through legal campaigns. For example, petitioner Veronica Cabe told the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, “Many Filipinos do not have a choice but to face and survive the storms and typhoons, and floods and the consequences that come with it . . . I believe that governments and corporations have the choice to choose people over profit, and businesses have a right to do business, but we also have the right to live.” Claimants’ stories of how they experience their human rights can disrupt “commonsense” notions of just and acceptable behaviors.

However, a simplistic notion of the power of storytelling and human rights rhetoric as inherently “good” and virtuous does not serve those of us working on climate and human rights litigation. Because identities and ideas are important in climate litigation, a site where narratives are co-produced and travel across imaginary political and legal borders of North and South, it is essential to hold  these questions of power:

- Which stories are told?

- In which forums?

- From whose perspective and voice?

- How do race, ethnicity, class, national origin, gender, age, and religious affiliation factor into the constellation of visible narratives?

- Who is listening, sharing, and responding? 

Too often, it is painfully clear that not all peoples’ voices compel us to act at all times or in all places. As Judith Butler observes, not all lives are grievable—some become the ambient atrocity of our times. Our opponents are also adept at using litigation as a platform for their own narrative-making; rights have gone wrong before, and perhaps they foreclose other possibilities for building new worlds. 


Building new worlds in the shell of the old

Historically, it is the “victims” in the traditional human rights paradigm—Indigenous peoples, women, racialized populations, refugees, and the poor—who have made and remade narratives that challenge and expand human rights categories. 

Audre Lorde once said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” People’s experiences of climate impacts defy essentialist human rights categories, such as gender, disability, or age. They invite an intersectional analysis that not only enlarges our understanding but may substantively “bring their trouble home” for courts with greater granularity and completeness and help establish procedural requirements of standing and victim status. The KlimaSeniorinnen case is a landmark in its intersectional approach to human rights, built from women’s narratives of gender and age-based vulnerability during summer heat waves. 

Narrative is a form of power. Indigenous peoples around the world have engaged in “vernacularization from below,” enshrining Earth as a sentient, ancestral being in a new legal, political, and moral meta-narrative of the rights of nature. This is a potent reminder: in climate litigation, we are attempting to build new worlds in the shell of the old. 

This is no utopia. As Krystal Two Bulls, an Oglala/Lakota and Northern Cheyenne organizer, writes, the “master’s house” of Western law is built on a cracked foundation. Claimants from former European colonies may experience today’s climate impacts as part of ongoing patterns of inequity, a continuum of discrimination and neglect unfolding from the time their ancestors experienced chattel slavery. Claimants face many obstacles to justice in human rights cases on climate, risking the intellectual extractivism of stories, narratives, and knowledges without responsibility, respect, or relationships. 

With human rights litigation also comes the danger of a single story—reductive narratives regarding human rights law’s “savages, victims, and saviors”; the inherent vulnerability and inevitable extinction of sinking islands; international environmental law’s paradigm of Earth as an “object of regulation”; and climate change as the perpetrator of human rights harms. Even as we may imagine different futures through the courts, litigation has a dark side


Sites of meaning-making

Narratives are the lifeblood of the law and social movements, and courts are one powerful, limited, and necessary site of struggle for those seeking climate justice. Because “law lives on narrative and is awash in storytelling,” litigation is a significant opportunity for lawyers, activists, and storytellers working to construct new futures. A court’s judgment becomes a “‘real social institution”—one that often plays out “on a field of pain and death.” For people experiencing the human rights impacts of climate change, a court’s decision is a judicial narrative that ultimately lives in bodies, potentially over generations in communities around the world. 

Claimants’ stories in the form of testimony evidence may assist courts in their fact-finding role, illuminate what is at stake, and offer claimants a measure of agency, dignity, and empowerment in cases where their names may be obscured. But often, these narratives remain thin descriptions of problems. Meanwhile, “thicker” personal narratives may foster an “empathic understanding” of the claimants’ situation, support the processes of discovery and justification, offer the decision maker a better appreciation of the human meanings of a given legal situation, and foreshadow possible futures to avoid—in a way that disembodied reason and over-emphasis on “legality” cannot accomplish. These stories have helped to cement the narrative of climate action as a legal duty and a human rights issue. They are not glitter to sprinkle over our briefs and campaign materials, but key sources of knowledge, insight, vision, and empowerment.



As Sisonke Msimang says, “In the final analysis, it is justice that matters—not stories.” Claimants’ stories are tiles in the mosaic of the law, part of its “continuing ‘story’ or narrative, extending into both past and future,” as Ronald Dworkin argues—like a chain novel collectively written by many hands over time. The master’s house may become a more powerful site for justice when it is inhabited by the stories of people directly impacted by climate change.