Open Lawfare: Report Warns Corporations, Rich Economies Face Onslaught of Climate Litigation

Student of the 'Fridays for Future' climate movement protest with a banner reading 'Burn c
Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa via AP

Companies operating in rich, successful capitalist economies including Britain, Australia, Germany, France, Japan, Canada and especially the U.S. must prepare for an onslaught of activist-driven climate litigation, a report released Friday warns.

The prediction of expensive judicial activism comes in the wake of a Dutch court decision Wednesday ordering oil giant Shell to slash its greenhouse gas emissions in this decade or face punitive financial retribution.

“The 2020s are a key decade for climate action. Therefore, sovereigns and corporates should expect more climate lawsuits to come down the line,” the study by business risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft said, noting “companies risk fines reminiscent of tobacco trials.”

According to AFP,  business entities that thrive in open democracies appear most at risk from penalty but the report also highlights a growing number of cases trickling down to fast-growing developing countries even as the world downplays the risks posed by the threatened “climate apocalypse.”

“Our data points to a shift in major emerging economies, which might not bode well for the carbon-intensive companies operating there,” said Liz Hypes, Verisk Maplecroft’s senior environment and climate change analyst.

“We are seeing climate litigation expand into countries where climate activism is lower but the threat of climate change is more significant.”

So far, most cases suing for strong climate action have been filed against governments.

But the Shell ruling, which ordered the Anglo-Dutch company to slash carbon emissions 45 percent before this decade is out and other recent challenges to fossil fuel companies suggest the corporate world could see a crescendo of lawsuits.

Last month, New York City sued ExxonMobil and two other oil giants for “intentionally misleading” consumers about the extent to which they contribute to climate change.

More than 1,800 climate change-related cases have been filed in courts around the world in the last 25 years, most of them since 2010, according to a database maintained by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, according to the AFP report.

A “climate litigation index” in the new report assesses the likelihood of climate lawsuits in nearly 200 countries, based on prior litigation, public awareness, climate activism, and the strength of judicial systems and soverign governments in dealing with outspoken activists.

The U.S. tops the risk ranking, followed by Britain, Australia, France and Germany. The next 17 countries on the list are all European, with the exception of Canada (10th) and Japan (18th).

Companies — and their financial backers — “are facing genuine legal risks from which the repercussions may be significant,” said Hypes.

With fossil fuels generating 80 percent greenhouse gas emissions, oil and gas companies, and coal-powered electric utilities, are especially vulnerable to climate liability lawsuits driven by activists.

Such is the amount of litigation forecast, an Australian university in 2019 introduced the world’s first undergraduate degree in climate law, predicting a global surge in compensation demands, class actions, grievances, transnational U.N. enforcement and human rights litigation due to “changes in weather patterns.”

Billionaire oligarch Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, for one has personally funded a network of attorneys to help pursue prosecutions related to “climate change.”

As the Competitive Enterprise Institute noted in a 2018 report, Bloomberg created a “scheme” to pay attorneys who were placed in the offices of state attorneys general, and whose role was to pursue environmental violations — as well as the political opponents of left-wing climate change policies.

AFP contributed to this story

Follow Simon Kent on Twitter: or e-mail to:


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.