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The Dutch Ruling On Climate Change That Could Have A Global Impact

Dennis van Berkel, an attorney with the Dutch environmental group Urgenda, stands on an earthen berm on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The water is higher than the land on the other side of the berm. A Dutch court ruled in favor of Urgenda on Wednesday, saying the Dutch government must cut carbon emissions by 25 percent. Environmental groups in other countries were closely watching the case.

In a ruling that could echo far beyond the Netherlands, a Dutch court has sided with an environmental group and said the government must cut carbon emissions by 25 percent in five years in order to protect the country's citizens.

Many other environmental groups and governments have paid close attention to the Dutch case, and there are similar ones in the works in other countries, including Belgium and Norway.

"The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts," the judges said in their ruling. "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."

When I visited Amsterdam in April, environmental lawyer Dennis van Berkel took me to the outskirts of the city to talk about the lawsuit filed by his group, Urgenda, against the Dutch government.

We walked up an earthen berm. Water lapped on one side, land spread out on the other. From that vantage point, you can see that the Netherlands sits below sea level.

Van Berkel told me he worries that rising sea levels caused by global warming could threaten his country's future.

"What this place reminds me of is that for the Netherlands really on the long run, climate change is sort of an almost existential issue," he said.

I reached him by phone on Wednesday, shortly after he learned that Urgenda had won its case.

"I'm extremely happy," he said with a laugh.

A court ordered the Dutch government to cut carbon emissions by 25 percent over the next five years. It had been aiming to cut them by 15 percent.

The Dutch government says it is studying the ruling.

Much of the Netherlands is below sea level, including Amsterdam. Urgenda argues that any rise in the sea level could have a huge impact on the country.
Ari Shapiro / NPR
Much of the Netherlands is below sea level, including Amsterdam. Urgenda argues that any rise in the sea level could have a huge impact on the country.

No court in the world has ever directly ordered a government to cut carbon emissions, and this could have implications far beyond the Netherlands.

From the beginning, Urgenda put all its legal documents online, translated them into English and encouraged groups from other countries to use its work.

"In other countries, people can also now address their governments on this basis that they won't just do what they politically wish to accomplish, but what is actually necessary according to science," van Berkel said.

A group in Belgium has already filed a similar suit. Norway has one in the works. This has the potential to be a, well, sea change for environmentalists.

"It's a sea change if other courts follow the lead of the Dutch court," said Michael Gerrard, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. "It's sort of a break in the dike, appropriate coming from the Netherlands. And we'll see how big the flow is that follows from it."

In the U.S., the Supreme Court has rejected a lawsuit like this one. But Gerrard said other major countries like India have legal systems more likely to to rule in favor of the environmentalists. And if this does catch on, he said, it could become an entirely new front for addressing climate change.

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