Issue 5/2018

A champion of climate justice

Tim Altegör, 17 Oct 18
Roda Verheyen is taking the fight against climate change to the courts. After locking horns with energy corporation RWE, she has now taken on the EU.

It is Sunday evening – time for political talk shows on German TV. For almost an hour, Anne Will has been discussing drought, climate change, organic farming and airfares with her panel. The debate has followed a familiar course, with the two ministers on the show doing a great deal of talking without saying all that much.

Then the camera turns to Roda Verheyen, who talks about her lawsuit against the EU’s inadequate efforts to tackle climate change, about how what matters is not what we would like to have, but the consequences we can reasonably expect others to endure, about the Recktenwald family which runs a restaurant on the German island of Langeoog.

She concludes by prophesying that with global warming of three to four degrees Celsius, an outcome we are currently headed for, “the island of Langeoog will cease to exist. That is how acute and real this problem is.” Suddenly, the urgency of the issue is brought into sharp focus, and all the rhetoric about making sure climate action remains affordable rings very hollow. After the programme is over, it is Verheyen’s brief appearance that sticks in the mind.

In the lawsuit, which was recently accepted by the European General Court, Verheyen is representing ten families from seven countries and a Swedish youth organisation affected by climate change. Her fundamental argument is that the EU’s target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions – 40% by 2030 – is too low to prevent dangerous climate change, even though the EU is capable of doing more. Therefore, it is failing in its duty to safeguard fundamental rights to life, health and property, and must revise its carbon reduction legislation.

According to climate experts, a target of 55 to 60 percent would be more in line with the Paris agreement and the findings of climate research. Verheyen herself cannot demand a concrete value in the lawsuit as this would be contrary to the principle of separation of powers, she explains over the phone. Setting an appropriate target is a matter for legislators, in this case the European Parliament and Council. That said, if the judges rule that human rights are not being adequately protected, the EU will be forced to set higher targets, the lawyer believes.

Surge in climate legislation

Roda Verheyen, a partner in a Hamburg law firm, has been involved in climate action for a long time. As a student in London she worked on campaigns by Friends of the Earth, and her PhD thesis dealt with the issue of damages arising from climate change under international law. In 2002, Verheyen and her colleague Peter Roderick co-founded the Climate Justice Programme to support climaterelated litigation worldwide.

Recent years have seen a surge in legislation of this sort: in the Netherlands, judges recently ordered the state to do more to protect the climate, and several cases are currently ongoing in the US. “People are turning to the courts because climate diplomacy keeps on suggesting that there is a huge margin of discretion in this matter,” Verheyen says. “But objectively speaking, this is simply not the case.”

In addition to the EU lawsuit, Verheyen is representing another high-profile case in which Peruvian farmer Saúl Luciano Lliuya is suing German coal giant RWE for damages to protect his hometown in the Andes from a melting glacier. In contrast to the EU dispute, in which the focus is on government efforts to fight climate change, Lliuya’s claim revolves around the responsibility of private companies for the consequences of global warming.

Verheyen says that more and more people are writing to her to enquire about compensation for the impacts of climate change, from farmers to communities hoping to have their dykes replaced. Whatever the final verdict, she already views the lawsuit against RWE as a success, as the Higher Regional Court in Hamm ruled that private entities can in principle be held accountable for damage caused by climate change. “That is a victory for me, regardless of the outcome of this particular case.”

An equally important breakthrough for Verheyen would be an acknowledgement by the European courts that effective climate action is a human right. In fact, she prefers not to contemplate any other verdict: “The consequences of inaction are far too catastrophic,” she concludes.


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