“A country has legal authority over harm that occurs within its borders, even if the causes of that harm are global.”
— Climate Compensation Act

You can sue for climate damages in your own country

Climate change is caused by pollution from burning fossil fuels in countries around the world. Most efforts to fight climate change assume that laws must be enacted by countries where the emissions occur: the very countries that have benefited economically from burning fossil fuels must pass laws restricting their future emissions.

But it turns out that the countries that have suffered from climate change have legal authority when it comes to legal accountability for harm caused by climate-change – climate-related wildfires, flooding, storms, etc. The precise rules vary from country to country,* but in general:

  • A country’s government or courts can claim jurisdiction over the consequences for climate-related harm that occurs within its borders.** That government or court can claim jurisdiction over global emissions – but only in relation to accountability for harm. 
  • Even if a lawsuit is brought elsewhere – perhaps in a country where a fossil fuel company is headquartered or where emissions occurred – the victim of climate change may ask the court to apply the laws of the country where the climate damages occurred.
  • When a climate-victim has fairly won a court order for damages against one or more fossil fuel companies in one country, the courts in other countries should recognize and enforce that court order.
  • It has never been legal to knowingly destroy property and threaten communities. In many countries there is a legal basis for holding fossil fuel cartels that have made billions of dollars selling fossil fuels accountable for the harm caused by their products.
  • If a country’s laws do not clearly allow for a lawsuit for climate damages, then the government of that country can and should amend the law to clarify or create a legal basis for such litigation.

This legal analysis, well grounded in a field of law known as “private international law” or “conflict of laws,” puts a great deal of power in the hands of the countries that have suffered as a result of climate change, creating the possibility of real action on climate change.

*In some countries, some of the rules may actually be set by sub-national governments – states or provinces.

** The actual legal argument is slightly more complicated (but only slightly). Many countries do accept that harm to real property (to land) does give rise to jurisdiction, but the more general rule is that a court has jurisdiction where the alleged “legal wrong” (usually known as a tort or delict) occurs. The question of where a tort occurs depends upon the particular tort being plead, and on the laws of individual countries, but there is a strong argument that in the case of climate change – where the tort only occurs because of actions in countries around the world, that the tort can only be said to have occurred in the country where the harm occurs. See Taking Climate Justice into our own Hands for a more in depth discussion.