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When Lawyers Enter the Climate Debate


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We all lose. If you can't win with facts, go to court.

International Court of Justice ruling would settle the scientific dispute and pave the way for future legal cases on climate change, says high-profile lawyer

False claims from climate sceptics that humans are not responsible for global warming and that sea level is not rising should be scotched by an international court ruling, a leading lawyer has said.

Scientific bodies such as the UN’s climate science panel have concluded that climate change is underway and caused by humans, Prof Philippe Sands QC told an audience at the UK’s Supreme Court. But a ruling by a body such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) would carry much more weight with public opinion and help pave the way for future legal cases on climate change, he said.

“One of the most important things an international court could do – in my view it is probably the single most important thing it could do – is to settle the scientific dispute,” Sands said, on the eve of a three-day conference on climate change and international law in London.

“A finding of fact on one or more of these matters [such as whether climate change is man-made], or indeed on other pertinent matters, would be significant and authoritative and could well be dispositive on a range of future actions, including negotiations.” Scientifically-settled questions such as whether climate change is even happening are still being challenged by “scientifically qualified, knowledgeable and influential persons”, he said.

Sands, a professor of international law at University College London and author of influential books on the Iraq war and interrogation techniques at Guantánamo Bay, said that failure to act on climate change would lead to an even bigger European refugee crisis than today’s.

Philippe Sands speaks about climate change and international law at the UK Supreme Court on 17 September 2015.

“The events of the past weeks in Europe, in relation to forced migrants and refugees, underscores the consequences of a failure to have a proper framework to deal with crises of these kinds, and the terrible human consequences. Appalling as the current situation is, it will be as nothing compared to what climate change may bring.”

The UN General Assembly should pass a resolution calling on the ICJ to make an advisory ruling, he said, on what sort of responsibilities countries have in terms of cutting carbon emissions to avoid dangerous warming. The court could also consider whether the science-based ‘safe’ level of 2C warming – which governments have agreed to hold rises to – should now be considered a legal obligation on countries.

But Sands admitted that the earliest the ICJ could make any such judgment would be 2018 at best.

The barrister said that a ruling by a Dutch court in June forcing the Netherlands government to cut its emissions faster by 2020 was “remarkable”.


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