Lauren Wright wants the federal government to do more to curb climate change — and now she and 14 other young Canadians have been given the green light to take Ottawa to court and demand accountability.
“To use, say, the Paris climate agreement as an example … [the pledges] look really good on paper. Our governments have signed on, they’ve promised,” said 19-year-old Wright, who is from Saskatchewan.
“But there’s a real lack of accountability there, which is what we are trying to address,” she told The Current’s guest host Mark Kelley.
The 15 climate activists are mounting a lawsuit against the federal government alleging that it is failing to protect Canadians against climate change, and that failure is a violation of the youths’ charter rights. It was originally filed in 2019, when the plaintiffs were all aged 10 to 19 years old.
The lawsuit was dismissed in 2020 by a federal court judge who ruled the claims didn’t have a reasonable cause of action or prospect of success. But on Dec. 13, the Federal Court of Appeal reversed that decision, paving the way for the activists to resume their legal battle.
Wright said the appeal court’s decision was “a moment of a massive, overwhelming relief,” after three years in limbo. She said the group brought the lawsuit because they felt left out of the conversation around climate change, and overlooked by lawmakers because of their young age.
“We found no matter what we did as activists, we were not having our rights recognized in a way that that gave us equal standing with those who are creating the laws and creating the systems that have caused us harm,” she said.
In a statement, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change told The Current that it shares the concerns of Canadians and agrees that climate change is an urgent priority, but will not comment further at this time as the case is before the courts.
The federal Liberal government has invested billions into initiatives to tackle climate change and mitigate its impact, including a carbon tax aimed at lowering emissions. But the country has a long history of missing emissions targets, and reports last month suggested Canada will not meet targets set for 2030.
Wright thinks that many of the commitments the government has made aren’t ambitious enough and more urgent action should be formulated “with the best available science as it emerges.” She also wants the government to be legally accountable, so that any pledges made “must be followed through to the letter of the law.”
Canada has suffered destructive fires, floods and extreme weather events in recent years, which scientists say are driven by climate change. Wright said these events show that she and her co-plaintiffs are already living with the impact of climate change, and it’s not some problem far off in the future.
“Climate change is non-partisan. It doesn’t care who you are, and everyone will be affected,” she said.
Youth seek action, not money
The lawsuit is trying to assert two “novel and important claims,” said Chris Tollefson, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and principal at Tollefson Law.
“One is that there is a right to a stable climate system capable of supporting human life. And secondly, that governments have a positive duty to ensure that this right is protected,” he said.
He said their aim is to support those claims with scientific evidence that “their charter rights, as we’ve claimed them, will be put at risk and violated.”
The case is the first of its kind in Canada, but similar youth-led actions have played out in other countries. In August, a judge in Montana sided with young activists who argued their constitutional right to a healthy environment was being violated by state bodies that permitted fossil fuel development without considering its effect on the climate.
Tollefson also pointed to youth-led legal cases in Germany, France and Ireland.
“In some cases, it has spurred on legislative change, it has spurred on public dialogue. And that’s what we hope, I think, will happen in this case,” he said.
He said the plaintiffs are not seeking money as part of any potential settlement.
“The goal here really is to force action, compel action or persuade governments to take action on climate change and for the courts to be part of that process of dialogue,” he said.
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Wright said that no matter the outcome, she and her fellow activists are dedicated to the climate fight.
“It’s not going to end at the lawsuit. We’re still fighting in our daily lives and we will continue to do so,” he said.
Refer also to:
2023: Held v Montana Victory! Judge Kathy Seeley rules kids’ constitutional right to “clean and healthful environment” violated by state agencies permitting fossil fuel development without considering greenhouse gas emissions effect on climate (like Steve Harper made agencies do in Canada when he was PM). Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law: “I think this is the strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court.”
2023: Give Canadian youth their day in court! Kids appeal 2020 loss trying to sue Canada over climate inaction where Harper’s Justice Michael D. Manson ruled it’s not for courts to decide. What cave does he (and Harper) live in?
2022: Climate Courts: Let trials proceed without gov’ts if politicians care so little about rights of youth and fail to show up or are too ashamed about giving the rich and corporate polluters everything and nothing to our kids and their future.
2021: New Study on Climate Litigation: Failing to heed latest science or lawyers intentionally working to ensure their clients’ lawsuits fail to keep big polluters, judges and enabling “regulators” and gov’ts happy?
2021: “Affair of the century!” Paris court convicts French gov’t of failing to address climate crisis and not keeping its promises. Fossil fuel pollution quote of the century by Jean-François Julliard: “No more blah blah.”
2020: Kids tried to sue Canada over climate inaction. They lost, Not for the courts to decide, Harper Gov’t appointed judge says. Kids plan to appeal. Bravo kids! I am grateful and in awe of you, but don’t expect “justice” to be served by our oil-soaked Supreme Court of Canada, or your Charter rights respected.
2020: “The stakes are formidable.” California communities’ climate lawsuits, key hearing this Wed, allege fossil fuel companies actively worked to discredit climate science and block limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
2020: Another cowardly North American judicial pass the buck? Federal appeals court throws out Juliana v. United States climate lawsuit in 2 to 1 ruling. In her blistering dissent: Judge Josephine Staton criticized the notion that courts have no role to play, saying govt itself acknowledged “the United States has reached a tipping point crying out for a concerted response – yet presses ahead toward calamity.”
2019: Rhode Island vs 21 Oil & Gas Companies: Judge William Smith characterized operations “leading to all kinds of displacement, death (extinctions, even), and destruction….Defendants understood the consequences of their activity decades ago…. But instead of sounding the alarm, Defendants went out of their way to becloud the emerging scientific consensus and further delay changes – however existentially necessary – that would in any way interfere with their multi-billion-dollar profits.”
Ruling in English
2019: Lawsuits in USA testing “attribution science.” Researchers can link weather events to emissions and companies responsible. “This body of literature…tells us that dangerous climate change is upon us, and people are suffering and dying…and it’s going to get worse.” For any potential uncertainty about climate attribution, there’s at least one truth that should override the rest: Fossil fuel companies “were aware decades ago what trouble climate change would be.”
2019: Encana, one of the world’s 47 most polluting companies, named “morally responsible” for death & destruction; First time a human rights body stated fossil fuel companies can be found legally and morally liable for harms linked to climate change.
2017: Encana named in 3 lawsuits by 2 California counties and 1 city claiming damages, that Encana and other companies deliberately presented misinformation about climate change and hindered action to address it
2015: A Duty to Protect. “It is also not at all certain, that stricter climate policies will seriously harm our competitive position, or lead to companies leaving…supposed dangers that the State put forward in its defense. But even if this were the case these grounds are insufficient to assume that the Netherlands is not neglecting its duty of care.”