By | Published On: October 26, 2020 |
  • Thomas S. Axworthy (Canada), Chair of Public Policy at Massey College;
  • Jutta Brunnée (Canada), University Professor of Law and Metcalf Chair in Environmental Law at the University of Toronto;
  • Julia Olson (United States), Executive Director & Chief Legal Counsel at Our Children’s Trust;
  • Dagny Ås Hovind (Norway), Associate at Glittertind Law;
  • Gaute Eiterjord (Norway), Campaigner at Greenpeace Norway;
  • Aslak Heika Hætta Bjørn (Norway), Advisor and Secretary at the Norwegian Sami Association; and
  • Tora Fougner-Økland (Norway), Central Board Member of Young Friends of Earth Norway.”

Detailed information about the panel can be found at the Massey College website

The talk primarily focused on two major climate cases, Juliana v. United States and People v. Arctic Oil.

The case, Juliana v. United States, was filed by 21 youth and the “organizational plaintiff Earth Guardians’’ who are represented by Our Children’s Trust. Their complaint claims that the U.S. government has violated the constitutional rights of its youngest generation of citizens to life, liberty, and property, and that they have failed to protect “essential public trust resources.” The case lost on appeal due to a concern that the court lacked the authority to enact and enforce new policy guidelines on climate, claiming an issue of “separation of powers” between the states and the federal government. Despite the dismissal of the case, the court did find that the federal government has actively contributed to climate change as a result of actions and decisions made by the government, and that some of the plaintiffs “had standing and could claim actual injury” in the case.

The case is not over; the plaintiffs have submitted an en banc petition to have the case reheard and are waiting to hear if their request will be accepted. Julia Olson, chief legal counsel on the case, emphasized the important role courts play as a “last check.” “They’re our last hope right now,” she said. “When the political branches of government are continuing their decisions, like the one to open up the Arctic further for oil extraction, or just keeping these systems in place that we’re all locked into with energy production, the courts are the last check on that abuse of power and making sure that that power is held to account to protect human rights.”

Quote from the Juliana vs. United States case.

The case People v. Arctic Oil, which is commonly referred to as the Norwegian Climate Lawsuit, is charging Norway with a similar constitutional violation. The case claims the Norwegian government has breached Article 112 of its constitution, which ensures all citizens have a right to a secure climate. “The [Norwegian] constitution states that the State should ensure the environmental rights of all citizens,” explained Gaute Eiterjord of Greenpeace. “But what we need to do now, is to get the court to agree with us then that the state should not allow for oil drilling … [and that] there are boundaries for how much damage you can do to the environment.” This case sheds light on the Norwegian Climate Paradox: on the one hand, Norway’s Petroleum and Energy Ministry have handed out ten licenses in the Arctic Barents Sea to 13 different drilling companies for oil and gas exploration, and on the other hand Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global divests $13 billion of their investments in fossil fuels. It is impossible to have it both ways.

Timeline for the People vs. Arctic Oil case.

The case will be heard before the remote hearing in a plenary session from November 4 through. All 19 justices will be present and all expenses incurred by the People during the hearing will be paid by the courts. This alone shows the paramount significance of this case in the eyes of the Norwegian government. Dagny Ås Hovind, a lawyer on the case, explained that so far “the Appeals Court actually did accept the fact that Norway has the responsibility for emissions from Norwegian-produced oil and gas that is burnt abroad, which was a major step from the where the court did not accept that argument.” It will be important that the Supreme Court also agrees to this claim and that the government is found guilty of breaking the constitution.

There has been debate around whether a case like this even belongs in the courts. Aslak Heika Hætta Bjørn, an advisor and secretary at the Norwegian Sami Association, claims the debate asks “Is this politics or is this something that we should do in the courts? And from the Sami context, we do not frown upon taking cases like this to the courts because, … both in a human rights perspective and a constitutional perspective, I see it as a rights litigation and rights are to be cleared out. Do they [rights] actually have a meaning or are they just goals, and if they are just goals, they shouldn’t be in constitutions.” The Sami are an indigenous people who have long fought for human rights and environmental protections.

Greenpeace is providing ways for everyone to get involved in Norway’s fight for environmental and human rights protections. You can send a message to the courts, sign-up, donate, and share news on the case. Norway needs to know that the world is watching come November.

The talk was hosted by Massey College at the University of Toronto, the Polar Law Group at the University of Toronto, and the Arctic Youth Network.

About the Author: Angelina Giordano

Angelina Giordano
Angelina Giordano is focused on mitigating the effects of climate change, fighting for environmental justice, and creative writing. She finished her BASc. Environment degree at McGill University and is currently working for the Energy consulting firm GEV Corp., and the law firm Giordano & Associates, Ltd. During her time at McGill she was VP Events of the McGill Energy Association, wrote articles for The McGill Tribune and competed on the McGill Figure Skating Team.

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