The Mathur Case: Youth are pushing for climate action in the courts

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The Mathur Case: Youth are pushing for climate action in the courts
Seven young people at the helm of Mathur et al. v. Ontario, a historic youth-led climate case that returns to Ontario’s Court of Appeal on January 15, 2024. Photo by Tilly Nelson, set design Kendra Martyn & Kira Evenson

Across the globe, young people are fighting for their governments to take action against climate change in order to secure the future they deserve for themselves and generations to follow. This fight has spilled into the streets and over into the courtroom in a growing trend of climate legal  cases. This particular subset of climate litigation cases led by young people fighting for better climate laws have grabbed the public attention because  youth-led cases are picking up speed, and winning!

According to the United Nations, approximately 34 (and counting) lawsuits have been filed by or on behalf of children and youth under the age of 25 in countries like Austria, Indonesia, Brazil, Ecuador, Australia, Germany, Portugal, Colombia, India and Pakistan. These cases are being taken seriously because they aren’t just resulting in empty declarations from courts, they are leading to decisions forcing governments to actually take action on climate change as opposed to hiding behind meaningless statements and ineffective policies.

In 2018, a year of record wildfires in Canada, the Ontario government rolled back provincial climate legislation and replaced them with significantly weaker 2030 targets (which Greenpeace Canada challenged in our own lawsuit). This weaker target allows for more greenhouse gas emissions to be emitted, further contributing to dangerous climate change-related impacts such as heatwaves, infectious diseases, floods, and, of course, wildfires. A year later, 7 courageous young people launched one of Canada’s most groundbreaking climate lawsuits challenging the legislative changes arguing that they would harm the health of young people and future generations and thereby violating Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While the case was initially dismissed, it was the first time in Canadian history a Court recognized that climate change has the potential to violate Charter rights. The court’s decision included a scathing critique of Ontario’s weak and dangerous climate target, and affirmed that courts can weigh in on such issues of climate laws. It was the closest a Canadian Court had come to recognizing climate justice based rights as constitutional rights. And since then, another Canadian Court has followed suit. In the landmark youth case La Rose, the Federal Court of Appeal also recognized these rights, opening the door once again to 15 youths suing the federal government for its failure to adequately address climate change.

On January 15th, 2024, Ontario’s Court of Appeal will be hearing the case of Mathur et al. v. Ontario. Greenpeace Canada is supporting this lawsuit by intervening in this case with Urgenda/Climate Litigation Network (CLN) alongside many civil society organizations making important submissions to the Court to contribute to the understanding of this rapidly changing and complex area of law. The topic of our intervention is about whether government emissions reduction efforts are within the scope of what a court is allowed to determine. We will argue that courts should be allowed to determine whether governments are doing their fair share to reduce emissions. Establishing judicial oversight for government accountability can lay the groundwork for holding fossil fuel companies responsible. If courts compel governments to set more ambitious emissions targets, implement stricter climate laws, or even phase out fossil fuel emissions entirely, this would subsequently increase the pressure on fossil fuel companies to actively engage in global efforts to combat climate change, ensuring their meaningful participation in a fast, fair and just transition. This appeal court finding a violation of constitutional rights could mean that Ontario’s weak legislation is struck and the province would need to draw up new, stronger climate legislation.

It’s becoming almost undeniable that courts will establish that the government’s failure to reduce and phase out fossil-fuel emissions is a violation of fundamental human rights and it will become impossible for governments to ignore their obligations. The science is clear and the voices of future generations ring clear. Governments shouldn’t be waiting until they are forced by the lawsuits brought by children to be protecting our collective future. But if they fail to act, the determination of our youth and these growing types of cases will ensure they remain accountable.