Suing over Climate Change


The moral, social and environmental case for action against climate change is clear and incontestable.

This much we know.

But the legal case? Spurred by youth-led legal suits against governments in Oregon and Massachusetts, today’s New York Times Room for Debate asks the question: Can Citizens Sue the Government Over Climate Change?

Eric Posner of the Chicago law school says unequivocally: “The answer is no. Citizens cannot sue the government unless the government causes a “concrete and particularized” harm to them — as opposed to a government action that affects everyone the same.”

Legally there is merit to this position. I would point out two counter considerations. First, environmental degradation almost always unjustly affects marginalized groups more than those typically responsible for creating the problems in the first place, be it at a global or local level. So the effects are often quite particular.

Second, our young – those inheriting our messes — are also a “particularized” group are they not?

Writes Says Kassie Siegel director of the Climate Law Institute and senior counsel at the Center on Biological Diversity, “The fact that a legal theory tackles new problems in novel ways does not necessarily mean it is unlikely to prevail. And court decisions do not occur in a social vacuum.”

If the politicians can’t make the changes required at the policy level, change the laws and make them take real action.


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