Government faces human rights legal challenge over failing to protect frontline communities from escalating impacts of climate crisis
A disability rights activist, a campaigner fighting to save his home from coastal erosion, and the environmental justice group, Friends of the Earth, are taking the government to court over its ‘unlawful’ climate adaptation plans.
The claimants filed their legal challenge at the High Court on Tuesday 17 October, requesting a judicial review of the government’s deficient National Adaptation Programme (NAP), which is putting people’s lives at risk as the climate crisis worsens.
Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the government is required to produce a National Adaptation Programme every five years, with the latest, NAP3, published in July this year.
The programmes should set out adaptation objectives, with plans and policies for meeting them, to protect communities in the UK from the impacts of climate change, such as extreme heat, flooding and coastal erosion.
With this summer setting shocking new global temperature records – described by one scientist as “gobsmackingly bananas” and leading the head of the UN to declare “the era of global boiling has arrived” – effective adaptation plans are more vital than ever, alongside urgent action to cut harmful emissions in line with climate goals.
Each NAP produced so far has faced criticism from climate experts, including the Climate Change Committee (CCC). The government’s advisors on climate said the previous plan (NAP2) included credible plans for only five out of the 45 adaptation areas examined in the report.
Friends of the Earth and the other claimants, argue that the current plan (NAP3) continues to fall short and is unlawful on the grounds that it breaches the Climate Change Act for failing to set out lawful ‘adaptation objectives’, and for failing to consider and publish an assessment of the risks to delivery of the plans and policies included.
The groundbreaking case, believed to be the first of its kind in the UK, also asks the court to rule that the deficiencies in the national plan breach the human rights of the co-claimants by failing to protect their lives, homes and property from foreseeable impacts of the climate crisis.
Friends of the Earth also believes that the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) failed to lawfully assess the unequal impacts of the NAP3 on protected groups under the Equality Act 2010, in line with the ‘public sector equality duty’.
The claimants wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey, to raise their concerns. Her department responded to deny any wrong-doing and refused to disclose key documents requested.
Co-claimants in the case, Doug Paulley and Kevin Jordan, are already seeing their lives severely impacted by the climate crisis. Coastal erosion and increasingly severe storms have left Mr Jordan’s home at risk of collapsing into the sea and left him isolated and at times unable to access vital services. Mr Paulley has a number of health conditions which are being exacerbated by searing summer temperatures, causing not just great distress and discomfort, but also putting him at increased risk of serious harm.
Will Rundle, head of legal at Friends of the Earth, said:
“This year has set a string of new global temperature records which have driven deadly heatwaves and wildfires across the world, and last July the UK exceeded 40C for the first time ever.
“We need our government to take urgent action to curb emissions and put in place credible plans to keep us safe from the extreme weather and impacts of climate change already devastating people’s lives. But the government’s latest adaptation plan continues to fall far short of what’s needed – and comes amid backtracking on the green policies needed to tackle climate change.
“Our co-claimants are among those most at risk from the climate crisis. We hope this case will lead to more ambitious and effective adaptation plans that better protect everyone, especially those who are already being hardest hit by climate breakdown.”
Co-claimant Kevin Jordan lives in the village of Hemsby in Norfolk, where coastal erosion, fuelled by rising sea levels, has seen 17 homes swept away or demolished over the past 10 years.
Hemsby residents are among those bearing the brunt of the government’s lack of robust adaptation plans. They say responses to coastal erosion have been reactive and chaotic. They receive no timely information about the state of the erosion or of the planned response measures. The uncertainty is causing fear, anxiety and stress, and leaving people unable to make informed decisions about their future. The Climate Change Committee has raised similar concerns.
The current adaptation plan includes no strong commitment to provide sufficient resources and support to communities at risk of erosion and flooding.
Mr Jordan, who is a member of the Save Hemsby Coastline campaign, said his home, on the southern edge of the coastal dunes known as The Marrams, is now just five metres from the cliff edge. When he bought his home 13 years ago, he was told it should be safe for about 100 years. Vehicle access to his home had been cut off due to the recent collapse of part of his road into the sea.
He describes lying awake at night worrying that the next storm could tip his home over the cliff, saying: “The collapse of the road made so many more things a struggle. From emergency services to bin collections, grocery shopping and even the post, it’s been one thing after another. It feels like we’re being forgotten up here.”
Describing why he signed up to be a co-claimant in the case, he added: “I have become increasingly frustrated by the government’s backtracking on climate change policies, coupled with the stress and anxiety of hearing the waves pounding at the dunes just five metres from my property.
“My home and others like it in don’t fall under the government’s narrow definition of a ‘standard property’ deemed worthy of saving from the threat of destruction. Our village and coastal community has been met with almost no meaningful support, and existing climate resilience and coastal defence funding policies completely fail to account for the enormous value Hemsby brings the wider community, and to Norfolk and the rest of the country as a whole.
“If this challenge is successful, I hope the government will be forced to take into account the people and communities directly affected by climate change and protect them as is their right.”
Co-claimant and disability rights activist, Doug Paulley, lives in a care home in Wetherby in Yorkshire and has a number of long-term conditions that make him particularly susceptible to overheating. These include an impairment that affects the nervous system (autonomic dysfunction) which has contributed to several strokes during Doug’s life, as well as diabetes and a heart condition.
According to the UK Health Security Agency, 2,803 excess deaths occurred during the summer of 2022. Those with pre-existing medical conditions, older people and very young children are especially at risk from the dangerous health outcomes associated with soaring temperatures.
But the adaptation plan fails to set out a cross-sector approach to addressing heat-related risks to the social care sector, nor does it provide dedicated long-term funding to retrofit care homes with insulation and cooling measures that protect people like Doug against extreme heat.
He said: “Even when temperatures are in the minuses, I’m most comfortable wearing just a t-shirt and trousers – that should give an idea of how much I struggle with heat intolerance. With the world only getting hotter, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for someone with my complex health needs to cope.
“During last year’s heatwaves in the UK, I practically had to hibernate to get through it, and couldn’t venture outside. Being confined to the indoors is incredibly isolating, as many disabled people who lived through the pandemic will attest. Time and time again we are bearing the brunt of the government’s failure to respond to the many, and interlinked, crises facing our society.
“Extreme heat is just one example of how the most marginalised communities are disproportionately threatened by climate change – things like flooding are a huge issue for disabled people too, when it comes to accessing services or even getting to safety. By bringing this challenge with my co-claimants, I want to show that the fight for climate justice is as much about protecting people as it is about our planet.”
Leigh Day solicitor, Rowan Smith, said:
“Our clients have joined forces to bring this legal claim against Environment Secretary, Thérèse Coffey over her latest National Adaptation Programme which they believe leaves the UK unprepared to meet the environmental challenges it is already facing because of climate change.”