A court in the Netherlands ruled Wednesday that the Dutch government must act to decrease national carbon emissions over the next five years until they are 25 percent lower than 1990 benchmark levels. The court's rationale rested in part on the country's topography, which leaves its population especially vulnerable to rising sea levels. From the AP:
The Hague District Court made the ruling in a case brought by a sustainability organization on behalf of some 900 citizens, claiming that the government has a duty of care to protect its people against looming dangers, including the effects of climate change on this low-lying country.
With half of the country's landmass below or less than a meter above sea level, the threat of rising water is far from abstract for residents of the Netherlands. The Dutch must maintain a complex system of flood-control structures to stay dry, and the protection of developed land will become more difficult and costly if ocean levels continue to rise.
The Dutch government's current approach, expected to cut emissions by only 17 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, was seen by the court as falling short of the necessary effort. "The State must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment," read a statement released by the court:
[T]he costs of the measures ordered by the court are not unacceptably high. Therefore, the State should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts. Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.
"Dutch government lawyers swiftly left the courtroom after the judgment and could not immediately be reached for comment," according to the AP. The ruling was lauded as by Greenpeace as "a landmark case" that "shifts the whole debate."
Here in the United States, where parts of our government are still arguing over whether the rising oceans are due to man-made emissions, the courts have sometimes been helpful in getting the attention of public agencies. In Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency (2007), the U.S. Supreme Court sided with 12 states, three cities, and a host of environmental groups in a 5-4 ruling that the EPA was failing in its primary mission by refusing to regulate automotive greenhouse gas emissions. The ruling led the EPA to recognize that greenhouse-gas tailpipe pollution could "endanger public health or welfare" via climate change and to issue emissions standards for new-car manufacturers.