David vs Goliath: The man taking huge corporates to court over climate change

A climate change court challenge against some of Aotearoa’s largest corporates will go ahead after the High Court on Friday refused to strike it out, reports Cat McLennan.

Over the past few years, court proceedings have been mounted in a number of countries to challenge lack of action on climate change by both government and corporates. Now New Zealand has a new case of its own.

Overseas, such legal challenges have gone both ways. In January, an appeals court threw out a landmark climate change lawsuit brought on behalf of young people against the US federal government. However, one month later, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport were illegal, as ministers had failed adequately to take into account the government’s climate change commitments.

Although most of the climate change court challenges to date have been unsuccessful, they have the potential to bring about large-scale change if – or when – courts decide that the time is ripe for creating new principles and duties relating to the environment.

The New Zealand case involves court proceedings filed last year by Iwi Chairs’ Forum climate change spokesperson Mike Smith, of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kahu, against Fonterra, Genesis Energy, Dairy Holdings, New Zealand Steel, Z Energy, the New Zealand Refining Company and BT Mining Ltd.

Each of the companies is either involved in an industry which releases greenhouse gases, or supplies products which discharge greenhouse gases.

Smith’s court action was based on three claims alleging that he would suffer harm from the effects of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. In particular, he said that climate change would increase sea levels, irrevocably damaging his family’s land in Northland and resulting in the loss of customary fisheries and landing sites as well as burial caves and cemeteries.

Smith said that the companies owed him a duty to take reasonable care not to operate their…

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