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In 2015, a Pakistani court in the case of Leghari v. Federation of Pakistan made history by accepting arguments that governmental failures to address climate change adequately violated petitioners’ rights. This case forms part of an emerging body of pending or decided climate change-related lawsuits that incorporate rights-based arguments in several countries, including the Netherlands, the Philippines, Austria, South Africa, and the United States (US). These decisions align with efforts to recognize the human rights dimensions of climate change, which received important endorsement in the Paris Agreement. The decisions also represent a significant milestone in climate change litigation. Although there have been hundreds of climate-based cases around the world over the past two decades – especially in the US – past and much of the ongoing litigation focuses primarily on statutory interpretation avenues. Previous efforts to bring human rights cases have also failed to achieve formal success. The new cases demonstrate an increasing trend for petitioners to employ rights claims in climate change lawsuits, as well as a growing receptivity of courts to this framing. This ‘rights turn’ could serve as a model or inspiration for rights-based litigation in other jurisdictions, especially those with similarly structured law and court access.
This examination of the role of litigation in addressing the problem of climate change focuses not only on how the massive and growing number of lawsuits influences regulation directly, but also on how the lawsuits shape corporate behaviour and public opinion. It provides readers with an understanding of how these lawsuits have shaped approaches to mitigation and adaptation, and have been used to try to force and to block regulation. There is a particular emphasis on lawsuits in the United States and Australia, the two jurisdictions which have had the most climate change litigation in the world, and the lessons provide broader insights into the role of courts in addressing climate change.