Mobilizing Courts in the Fight Against Climate Change

By Meenu Johnkutty ‘21

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Figure 1. Courts may play a significant role in mitigating future effects of climate change.

Attempts to amend national attitudes towards climate change have been at the forefront of the climate change movement. The recent movement to involve the national court system may prove effective in mitigating the future effects of climate change, especially in regard to coal pollution and the risk it poses to public health. A study conducted by Dr. Sabrina McCormick from George Washington University analyzes the power that courts play in changing public opinion concerning climate change.

Dr. McCormick first calls to attention the few lawsuits at the national level (16 percent) that cite health risks as a cause for concern. She argues that sufficient evidence gives defendants invoking health concerns considerable backing in the court. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence for the hazard of coal pollution to human health; according to researchers, airborne pollutants associated with coal production have been estimated to cause over 200,000 premature deaths in the United States. Moreover, increasing pressure on large coal power companies to minimize air pollution related to carbon dioxide can also potentially minimize the presence of other harmful pollutants such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and ozone precursors in the atmosphere. By citing such arguments in lawsuits, more weight can be given to health-based climate change arguments.

The researchers believe that following this thought process may help propel climate change to the standing of other known health risks. For example, it was through the action of the courts that much legislation was effectively put in place with regards to protect the community from the dangers of tobacco and its related products. If more attention is given to the health risks associated with climate change, a move akin to the tobacco movement can be initiated. The courts hold considerable power in mobilizing change at the national level and therefore are an option to consider in the fight against the effects of climate change.



  1. S. McCormick, et. al., The role of health in Climate litigation. AJPH (2018). doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.304206.  
  2. Image retrieved from:

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