From climate inaction to government class action

Taking climate change to court

As politicians dither, the clocks on climate change are ticking.

The Canadian government has continued to promise action on climate change — from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris Agreement — but its commitment to change remains to be seen.

Many Canadians are fed up with government inaction on climate, including a young group of Quebecers who recently filed a class action suit against the federal government for their insufficient response to climate change.

On November 26, ENvironnement JEUnesse, a non-profit environmental organization in Quebec, sued the Canadian government for its inadequate response to the growing global crisis. ENJEU says that the Canadian government is failing its youth and its passive approach to climate change undermines fundamental rights of the younger generation.

“The government needs to adopt a more ambitious target and action plan,” says Catherine Gauthier, Executive Director of ENJEU, in an interview with A\J.

“The ultimate goal [of the lawsuit] is to make sure that Canada is doing enough to protect our future,” she says. “And by that we mean a more ambitious target that would prevent the worst impacts of climate change for all young people.”

Gauthier has been involved with ENJEU since she was 16, when she started looking at how composting systems could be implemented in schools, and later took part in the UN climate change negotiations in Montréal as a Canadian youth delegate.

ENJEU claims that the government targets aren’t sufficient to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change, and its current framework won’t even allow Canada to reach these low-level goals. “The Canadian government is infringing on our generation’s rights to life and security, and also to a safe environment,” Gauthier says.

“Canada’s target [is to reduce] GHG emissions by 30 percent by 2030 based on 2005 levels, which is a target that is clearly insufficient.”

According to a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October, global temperature increases of more than 1.5°C will have devastating impacts on the environment. Without rapid action and specific planning, the Canadian government puts people under 35 at risk of suffering these consequences.

“Young people are really scared and also ashamed to see that Canada is not doing enough,” says Gauthier. She notes that impacts of climate change are already very real, citing a heat wave in Quebec in summer 2018 that caused nearly 100 deaths. “[It is] really urgent for the Canadian government to take action and to completely change the direction we’re going.”

Canada’s economic ties to fossil fuels are another cause for concern. Funds that could be put towards cleaner and more sustainable technologies are being used to subsidize oil companies and build pipelines.

“Fossil fuel companies are putting a lot of pressure on the Canadian government…which is totally unacceptable,” Gauthier says, pointing at their $4.5 billion investment in Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline last summer.

“What it means for us is Canada prefers to protect the oil industry rather than the future of young people.”

Trudel Johnston & Lespérance, the firm filing the claim on behalf of ENJEU, has won the most class action cases in Canada since it was founded 20 years ago. They are acting pro-bono on this case.

“The Canadian government’s behaviour infringes on several fundamental rights protected by the Canadian and Quebec charters,” said Bruce Johnston, a partner at TJL.

“We believe that we have a solid legal case that deserves to be brought before the courts.”

And the lawsuit isn’t the first of its kind. Youth around the world are taking action and calling on their governments for a more aggressive response to the changing climate. Similar proceedings are taking place in the U.S., Uganda, New Zealand, and the European Union, to name a few.

Gauthier notes how movements in other countries served as an inspiration for ENJEU’s recent legal action. “That’s really encouraging, to see how young people are taking climate change to the court,” she says. “Our governments are clearly not doing enough, and we need more than words in [these] times.”

Just last year, a case led by 25 young people in Colombia successfully sued the government, making it mandatory to halt deforestation in the Amazon within a five month window. In the Netherlands, another winning case legally bound the government to cut greenhouse emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020 (compared to 1990 emissions).

With youth and environment groups starting to take a stand, perhaps more ambitious responses to climate change can begin to gain traction. Young people are starting to lead more sustainable lives, says Gauthier, but government action is a big barrier to change.

“Whatever we do in terms of reducing our individual GHG emissions, if our government is purchasing pipelines, we won’t be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees,” she says.

“So we really need to see strong action from our government.

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