Environmental group sues Irish government over climate change

In the wake of Hurricane Ophelia, an Irish environmental group is taking its government to court.

The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland. (CREDIT: Getyy/	mikroman6)
The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland. (CREDIT: Getyy/ mikroman6)

For the first time in the country’s history, an Irish environmental group is turning to the legal system for help answering an important question: Is the government doing enough to protect its citizens from climate change?

According to a lawsuit filed earlier this week by Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), the Irish government is not taking adequate steps to protect residents from the consequences of climate change. The lawsuit specifically names the country’s National Mitigation Plan, arguing that the plan does little to actually curb greenhouse gas emissions. According to the lawsuit, Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions are actually expected to rise 7.5-10 percent by 2020, rather than fall by 25 to 40 percent over the same time period, as required by the National Mitigation Plan.

“The consequences of climate change are dire. This has long been acknowledged by our government, but they still refuse to take the necessary action,” Tony Lowes, a founding member of FIE, said in a press statement. “This case is not about any one environmental organization. It’s a case for everyone in Ireland, young and old. We’re hoping the case will capture imaginations here and abroad and galvanize a movement pushing for ambitious action.”

The lawsuit was inspired by other legal actions in various countries around the world, from the Netherlands to the United States. In 2015, a group of 900 Dutch citizens filed a lawsuit against the government of the Netherlands, arguing that the governments inaction on climate change constituted a human rights violation. A Dutch court later agreed with the plaintiffs, ordering the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2020. It was the first time that a court had found that human rights laws could be used as the basis of a climate lawsuit.

In the United States, a group of 21 youth plaintiffs are also suing the federal government for climate negligence, arguing that through its support of the fossil fuel industry and general inaction on climate change, the U.S. government has violated the plaintiffs constitutional rights to a livable environment. That case was cleared to go to trial this February by a district court in Oregon, but is currently on hold due to a challenge to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals filed by the Trump administration.

Dennis van Berkel, a Dutch attorney who represented the citizens in the 2015 lawsuit, presented the case in Ireland in the context of a growing wave of climate litigation around the world, noting that citizens are increasingly turning to the courts for movement on climate action — especially in countries with governments that appear either uninterested in or antagonistic towards reducing emissions.

“The Dutch case proved that all governments have a legal duty to protect their citizens against climate change by doing their part to lower emissions,” van Berkel said in a press statement. “Given Ireland’s seriously inadequate climate policies and growing emissions, this case may well lead to the court reaching the same conclusion.”

The Irish government now has three weeks to file its response to the lawsuit.

Last week, Ophelia — which had been a category three hurricane, the most powerful Eastern Atlantic hurricane ever seen — slammed into Ireland, bringing gusts of 119 miles per hour and ripping roofs off of homes and businesses. The storm caused at least three deaths, and knocked out power for 360,000 residents.

The storm was made stronger by near-record warm waters in the mid-Atlantic. And while local media referred to the event as “unprecedented,” it’s likely that Ireland will see more storms like Ophelia in the future, as warmer ocean temperatures feed both higher wind speeds and more moisture in the atmosphere, leading to larger, more destructive storms and hurricanes.