Researchers highlight importance of public health in climate litigation

Researchers highlight importance of public health in climate litigation

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Climate litigation offers citizens a way to force governments and companies to cut carbon emissions or even pay for damages caused by climate change impacts. It is, however, a relatively new frontier in the world of climate action and much research is currently going into it. In this context, researchers from George Washington University analysed the role of health concerns in climate litigation and found health may be critical for successful climate lawsuits.

Health impacts, according to the researchers, could be considered as a damage and be a more powerful argument than, say, property damages. On the one hand, burning fossil fuels can increase instances of respiratory diseases like asthma and bronchitis, and also heart diseases. On the other hand, climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels can lead to hotter temperatures which will worsen air pollution, increase the risk of heat strokes, dehydration, and death, and widen the areas in which mosquitoes spread diseases like dengue and West Nile virus.

Of 900 court decisions related to climate change and coal-fired power plants and analysed by the researchers, only 16 percent considered health. In interviews with scientists, advocates, and legal experts, the team found that while litigants who bring up health in climate lawsuits are not more likely to win them than those who don’t, health considerations can strengthen climate lawsuits in two ways:

  1. Plaintiffs might gain standing if they are able to demonstrate that their health deteriorated as a result of, in this case, air pollution. Meaning, a connection between the defendant’s actions (polluting the air) and the consequences suffered by the plaintiff (respiratory disease) was demonstrated to the court.
  2. Lawsuits that argue around public health and have compelling human stories play well in court as they are easier to grasp than stories about future climate impacts and climate science.

Lead author Sabrina McCormick says, “many experts believe that climate change is the biggest threat to public health in the 21st century, and the courts have been and will continue to be a central avenue for the development of climate-related policy in the United States.”

This paper comes just a few months after ClientEarth released a report warning governments and business of increasing instances of litigation for failing to prevent foreseeable climate-related harm as event attribution studies become more effective at quantifying the link between greenhouse gas emissions and extreme weather events. The combination of attribution science and arguments for public health could prove to be a powerful combination in front of courts which are seeing rapidly increasing numbers of climate lawsuits.


Access Sabrina McCormick, Samuel J. Simmens, Robert Glicksman, LeRoy Paddock, Daniel Kim, Brittany Whited, “The Role of Health in Climate Litigation”, American Journal of Public Health 108, no. S2 (April 1, 2018): pp. S104-S108.

Cover photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

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