Could rich countries be sued for climate change?

Could the poorest countries in the world sue imagethe rich, polluting countries which are deemed to be responsible for climate change by producing excessive carbon emissions?

The Make Wealth History blog tells us that the Bonn Agreement in 2001 recognised that developed countries were largely responsible for climate change and should pay towards alleviating its effects in poorer countries, with several countries promising money, and which we haven’t paid.

It’s not the first time this question has been asked, it was raised in 2001 when a Stephen Timms (is this Stephen Timms MP? I doubt it as Labour had no policy on climate change in 2001) of the New Economics Foundation stated that under the UN international law commission’s draft declaration on state responsibility, US greenhouse gas emissions could constitute an international crime. It is estimated that climate change could cost developing countries up to £6.5 trillion over the next 20 years.

“..all industrialized countries whose emissions are, per person, above a sustainable threshold should be looking over their shoulders. The next message G7 heads of state receive from their poorer cousins may not be an invitation to a reception, or a plea for more aid. It may be much more abrupt: “We’ll see you in court for global warming.”

Make Wealth History asks:

“If we are demonstrably responsible for damage happening now, what’s to stop us being sued for our abuses? Does anyone know of a historical precedent for this?”

Such a case would be a legal minefield and drag on for years. Although it might seem an impossible thought now, whose to say it might not happen in 20 or 30 years time?


  1. actually, the idea of suing nations for these damages seems impractical for two reasons:

    –the difficulty of assigning specific damages to each country when , as is pointed out above, individuals within those countries are differently liable.

    –the probability that nations will invoke the soverign immunity defense.

    on the other hand, seeking redress against individual polluters in the form of “class action” suits seems entirely reasonable; and the mass filing of these suits agains a large number of polluters in a single country might create a “critical mass” that could push a government into seeking a mass settlement process, not unlike the tobacco settlement in the u.s.

  2. The concept of “international law” is a bit of a myth, it only really exists if you’ve got the muscle to back it up. What court will they hold the case in? The UN, an organisation dominated by US funding perhaps? Besides, who is going to force damages out of the likes of the USA, China and Russia? They’ll just laugh.

    It’s hard enough getting many countries to cough up aid they’ve actually promised to deliver, let alone trying to extort it out of them with hollow threats.

  3. Possible in principal but I doubt if it would go any further than attempting to sue a Head of State for war crimes in an reputedly illegal war.

  4. Don’t you just love that ad on tv – telling us how many lorry journeys can be saved – if we just buy concentrated washing yo liquid

    And how many air miles can be saced if we buy local produce instead of NZ lamb, food from Africa – or jerusalem artichokes … not that I buy any of them anyway. 40 million sheep in the uk (how many in NZ). Use African food to feed the hungry in Africa – and jerusalem artichokes … please NO more.

  5. The one thing the US is short of is lawyers
    and enough military hardwate to impose US Law.

    So who is going to sue, and which court is going to enforce it. Alas the land of the free, has flexed it’s military muscle in Iraq – and there’s no one who dare say boo.

    PS – If pollution is created by human activity, then childbirth is the root of all pollution. Could childless people (singles and couples) sue child breeding/rearing couples?

  6. It probably is an international crime, but I can’t see rich countries paying up if a case were brought – just a load of lawyers getting even richer.

  7. Well that would be very odd if you ask me? I for one don’t contribute that much to global warming, and my Christmas potatoes died in the frost, so its not even working.

  8. China has a lot to answer for…

  9. Well, I guess it is more than possible. The thing that has struck me is that Britain and France’s pollution has adversely affected Scandinavian Forests particularly Norway die to acid rain, but they have not sued us.

    But I cannot feel that this “environmental reparations” will not be paid because it will detract from solving the actual problem. Giving money to states is unlikely to help the environment in the short or long term.


  1. Could we be sued for climate change? « MAKE WEALTH HISTORY - [...] Update: Ellee Seymour followed this up on her blog, and quotes Stephen Timms of the New Economics Foundation, speaking…

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