Federal lawyers are opposing a class action lawsuit by a group of young environmentalists in Quebec who are trying to hold Ottawa accountable for its actions on climate change.
The non-profit group, Environnement Jeunesse, has launched an unprecedented legal battle against the federal government for violating the rights of young people by failing to adequately tackle global warming. The group went to court on Thursday to seek class action authorization on behalf of 3.5 million Quebeckers aged 35 and younger – the generations that, it argues, will bear the brunt of the consequences of global warming.
But federal lawyers are opposing the authorization, arguing that climate decisions should be handled by policy-makers, not the courts.
Government lawyer Ginette Gobeil said that while climate change represents a major challenge and young people are encouraged to get involved in combatting it, the courts shouldn’t interfere in the legislative and political process.
The courts can neither force governments to introduce legislation nor compel Parliament to adopt it, she told Quebec Superior Court Justice Gary Morrison. Ms. Gobeil disputed the idea that the government’s behaviour constitutes a rights violation under the charter.
“There is no violation because the charter doesn’t oblige the government to legislate one way or the other,” she said.
Environnement Jeunesse is seeking punitive damages of $100 a person, although its main goal would be to use a multimillion-dollar payout to obtain measures to curb global warming.
The lawsuit says governments have shown “gross negligence” on the file for a quarter century. While the claims call out successive governments, they put the ruling Liberals on the spot as the party heads into an election defending their environmental record.
“Despite their discourse, it’s the same old story. Nothing has changed,” said Catherine Gauthier, executive director of Environnement Jeunesse and the representative plaintiff in the class action. “My generation is looking for concrete actions and we don’t see much difference with previous governments.”
Ms. Gauthier, 29, called climate change “the issue of my generation and a question of survival. My future is at stake.”
Lawyer Bruce Johnston, who is representing the plaintiffs, told the court that the Superior Court hearing was unfolding on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. He drew a parallel between the courage of the young Canadian soldiers on the beaches of Normandy and the youth behind the environmental fight.
The soldiers in the Second World War faced the “incarnation of evil” and it was clear what had to be done, Mr. Johnston said. The challenge today is more complex yet is also “more dangerous and fundamental” since it threatens the future of the planet, he said.
The courtroom at Montreal’s Palais de justice was filled with young environmental activists supporting the class action suit.
The Quebec initiative mirrors similar efforts by citizen groups worldwide to tackle climate change through the courts. In the United States, federal judges were in court this week hearing arguments over the constitutional rights of young people to be protected from climate change.
In Europe, a Court of Appeal in The Hague upheld a judgment last fall forcing the Dutch government to step up its efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions after a Dutch citizens’ group filed a lawsuit on behalf of 886 plaintiffs who sought tougher government action to protect Holland from the effects of climate change. The case has reached the Netherlands’ Supreme Court.
Justice Morrison reserved judgment on the Quebec class action authorization.