We are all aware of the health impacts of climate change. But how do we get governments to act? This blog post aims to alert public health academics and practitioners to the opportunities for ‘strategic litigation’, which uses individual cases to bring about broader social change, to hold governments and private sector polluters to account for health-harming pollution and climate change
By David Patterson LLM. MSc.
Public Health, Climate Change and Strategic Litigation
Building a Powerful Alliance between Public Health Practitioners, Communities, and Legal Advocates
Mosquitoes winging their way north across Europe bringing dengue. Floods and drownings. Heat stress. Mental anguish and despair. We are all aware of the health impacts of climate change. But how do we get governments to act? Ballot box pressure (in democracies) does not guarantee results as shorter-term concerns distract from our overheating planet. No easy answers, but experience from other public health challenges and the environmental movement provides clues and inspiration.
In 2021 the Faculty of Public Health (UK) hosted a webinar on Public Health, Climate Change and Strategic Litigation The edited recording is now available online. The webinar aimed to alert public health academics and practitioners to the opportunities for ‘strategic litigation’, which uses individual cases to bring about broader social change, to hold governments and private sector polluters to account for health-harming pollution and climate change. The webinar was co-hosted by the Global Health Law Groningen Research Centre and the ‘law and public health’, ‘environment and health’ and ‘ethics and public health’ sections of the European Public Health Association.[i]
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah recounted how air pollution in London led to the death of her daughter, Ella. Crucially, the coroner agreed: Ella’s death certificate now records air pollution as a contributing factor. The expert testimony of leading immunopharmacologist and asthma expert Sir Stephen Holgate was essential to this legal precedent. In the webinar, Sir Stephen noted how today much air pollution is largely invisible and hence neglected – yet ‘breathing clean air is a right, just as we have the right to clean water.’ Making the link with climate change, Dr Maria Neira, WHO’s climate change and health champion, presented the ‘health argument for climate action’, which WHO took to CoP26.
But governments have long been aware of the short- and long-term health impacts of air and other environmental pollution. What else can be done? Strategic alliances between public health actors, civil society organizations, environmental activists, and legal academics and practitioners are using court action to highlight government inaction and industry abuses. Marlies Hesselman, lecturer at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, reviewed four recent and current cases where governments have been called to answer before international courts and tribunals for health harms related to climate change.
Scientific evidence of the health impacts is a crucial component. Irmina Kotiuk, senior lawyer with ClientEarth’s Clean Air Program, noted the crucial role for public health specialists as experts in strategic litigation to address environmental pollution – building on the experience of tobacco and asbestos. She urged nurses and doctors to record evidence in medical files which can later be used in expert testimony. Richard Harvey, barrister and legal counsel for Greenpeace, drew parallels between tobacco companies’ infamous denials of the link between smoking and ill-health, and today’s spin from fossil fuel companies.
Restating the problem in ever greater detail is not a strategy for change
Dr Marina Romanello, Research Director for Lancet Countdown, reiterated the health impacts of climate change and the destruction of our health through fossil fuel industry subsidies. Yet the Lancet Countdown 2021 report on health and climate change makes no reference to the role of the law (other than to the International Health Regulations), let alone to the hundreds of current and recent legal cases on climate change, easily searchable through online databases.
Restating the problem in ever greater detail is not a strategy for change. We need to combine the credibility and authority of hard science with the legal skills of seasoned national and international litigators and the experience in social mobilization tested and proven by other social movements – all adapted to today’s online, COVID-19 constrained world. Dr Neira remarked that ‘People working in the environment say we need to hear more from the public health community – because you are still trusted – politicians will listen to you.’
Public health researchers and practitioners, working alongside affected communities, can provide vital evidence in legal action to force government action on climate change and pollution. But to get there, we need stronger bridges between public health, environmental, and legal communities.
[An earlier version of this comment appeared in Better Health for All in November 2021]