Grandpa Joins Polish Activists in Court Over Climate Change Failures

Young climate activists, a grandfather and a farmer sued the Polish government over its failure to deal with climate change.

The Polish citizens argue that extreme weather events exacerbated by the warming of the planet are threatening their individual rights and their livelihoods, in lawsuits filed at first instance courts in Poland this week. Environmental law firm ClientEarth, representing the individuals, said two more cases will follow. 

“A few years, back climate litigation was a complete fantasy, especially in Poland, and now it’s becoming a reality,” said Janusz Buszkowski, ClientEarth’s lead lawyer on the cases. “Examples of climate litigation with spectacular results outside of Poland were an encouragement for us.” 

The cases are the first to expose the effects of climate change on people living in Poland and to ask courts to find that the country’s inadequate climate policies violate individual rights.

Climate litigation soared globally after governments in most countries signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions to keep planetary warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or close to 1.5ºC by the end of the century. Momentum is building around the strategy of using courts to force states and companies to pursue more ambitious climate goals following landmark victories in recent weeks. 

Last month, a court in the Netherlands ordered oil supermajor Royal Dutch Shell Plc to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels. In April, the German supreme court ruled that the government’s 2019 climate law was incompatible with fundamental rights. Claimants in the two cases were young climate activists and environmental organizations who argued that their individual rights were being violated. 

Among the claimants in the Polish case is 56-year-old Piotr Nowakowski, who lives in a forest in the Greater Poland region. Nowakowski has seen how stronger storms and forest fires are increasingly becoming a threat to him and his home, while he has to dig deeper wells to find water.  He’s taking the Polish government to court because it is failing him, his children and grandchildren, he says.

“I've been engaged in climate action for several years and I've exhausted many paths of action, so I decided to take a step forward,” said Monika Stasiak, another of the five Polish claimants. 

Grandpa Joins Polish Activists in Court Over Climate Change Failures

Aleksander Brzozka, spokesman for Poland’s Climate Ministry, didn't answer a call made to his office on Thursday. The ministry didn't immediately  respond to an email requesting comment.

Stasiak is a 34-year-old ethnologist from central Poland. Over the past years, intense drought and dwindling water levels in the nearby Pilica river have meant local the local ferry was unable to run, farms have suffered crop failures and Stasiak had to change her plans to start an agrotourism business.

“During summers it often happens that there's not enough water for kayaks to get through the river,” she said. “The drought also affects our plans to be self-reliant—we’re afraid of what is going to happen.”

Poland’s current policies are inadequate to slow the pace of climate change and that’s already having an impact on individuals, ClientEarth said. Poland is Europe’s most carbon-intensive nation with about 70% of the electricity it generates coming from burning coal, the most polluting fossil fuel. That makes the EU’s largest eastern economy one of the region’s worst when it comes to air quality—it’s home to 36 of the 50 most polluted cities in the bloc. 

The country has agreed to join EU efforts to cut emissions 55% by 2030, compared to 2019 levels. It wants to reduce coal usage to as little as 11% by 2040 and has agreed with coal unions to close the last mine in 2049. It is also seeking to stop production at the EU's biggest lignite-fired power plant in Belchatow in 15 years.

“Something is slowly being done, but it's not adequate to the scale of the crisis or the norms indicated by the scientists,” Stasiak said. “Both the country’s energy policy or the agreement with miners are internally contradictory and are completely against science.”

Poland should cut its emissions 61% by 2030 relative to 1990 and achieve climate neutrality by 2043 in order to comply with the commitment it took when it signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, ClientEarth said in the lawsuits. The cases were filed in five different local courts in the hopes that at least one will either rule that claimants have a right to a safe climate, or end up in the country’s Supreme Court.

“We have quite a few Polish examples of climate cases and they were so far treated by courts seriously,” said ClientEarth’s Buszkowski.“We believe that the time has come to go at a larger scale and to sue the only entity that’s responsible for the emissions from the whole territory of Poland, which is the Polish state.”

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