Although efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change have been informed by scientists and led by technocrats, their success will depend on ordinary citizens. It is the people and their representative institutions that must decide where individual rights end and collective responsibility begins.
LONDON – In January, the Netherlands hosted a digital Climate Adaptation Summit where representatives of governments from around the world discussed their post-pandemic recovery plans. To take advantage of remarkably cheap public finance, many emphasized state-directed investments in green infrastructure to promote climate adaptation and stimulate the economy.
Given the increasing evidence that unavoidable shifts in the climate system are already underway, this focus on adaptation should be applauded. But the constitutional implications of increased state interventionism should not be underestimated. Any time a state promises to wield power on a society-wide scale – in this case, to climate-proof the entire economy – the sources and scope of its legitimacy will be hotly debated.
In many countries’ courts, they already are. In 2015, Urgenda, a nongovernmental organization, sued the Dutch government on the grounds that it had failed to protect the Dutch people from the heightened risk that climate change poses to low-lying countries. The implication was that a failure to meet national emissions-reduction targets constitutes evidence of state negligence. In 2019, the Supreme Court in The Hague agreed; ruling in Urgenda’s favor, it compelled the state to pursue larger emissions cuts.