Legal Ecologies of Climate Change: How Farmers are Advancing Environmental Justice in the German Courts

Legal Ecologies of Climate Change: How Farmers are Advancing Environmental Justice in the German Courts

Should Volkswagen be held partially liable for creating a climate that hurts farmers?

Ulf Allhoff-Cramer thinks so.

In May 2022, Allhoff-Cramer, a farmer in Germany, sued Volkswagen in German court, arguing that since Volkswagen is the second largest car company in the world, the company is partly responsible for the damage the farmer has suffered, and will suffer in the future, as a result of climate change.

Ulf argued that Volkswagen infringed on his legal rights of property, health, and the right to preserve greenhouse gas-related freedom due to the climate-related consequences of its business activities. He also seeks a court order that Volkswagen drastically reduce the sale of cars with combustion engines in this decade and stop them completely in 2030 (Case No. 01 O 199/21 LG Detmold).

Allhoff-Cramer is not alone. In 2017, Saúl Lliuya, a farmer in Peru, also filed suit against the German energy company RWE in German court. Lliuya argued that RWE should compensate him proportionately for expenses incurred for protective measures taken in favor of his property as a result of climate change. About 0.47 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to RWE (Case No. 5 U 15/17 OLG Hamm).

Allhoff-Cramer, Saúl Lliuya, and possibly many others around the world, are advancing the cause of climate justice by using a creative yet unconventional tool: liability law.

Climate change impacts are increasingly framed as question of liability law. If these cases prove effective, it could prompt civil and criminal law to fundamentally rethink the legal relationship between those responsible for causing climate change and those who suffer its effects. These cases could also inspire similar litigation around the world.

By bringing together geographic perspectives on law, climate change, and environmental justice, legal geography offers a unique perspective for understanding how the fight for climate justice is unfolding in the German court system. I refer to this perspective as “legal ecologies”, which I use as an example of how litigation can shape, redefine, or protect regional ecologies that organic farmers like Ulf are deeply dependent upon and create a new landscape of liability that takes into account the aggregate effects of polluters.

As a law in action, Ulf’s and Saúl’s efforts to create a more just and sustainable future illustrate that environmental justice is being turned into action in Germany’s court system.

What is the reasoning behind these most recent legal decision-making processes?

Ulf Allhoff-Cramer demands that the company VW, which produces in the same region as he does, drastically reduce the sale of cars with combustion engines in this decade and stop them completely in 2030. The 62-year-old farmer, who is supported by the environmental organization Greenpeace, had also referred in his lawsuit to the Federal Constitution Court, which many consider groundbreaking.

VW is still trying to reject the accusations and has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. VW’s lawyers argue that the constitution does not require individual liability for the diffuse distance and summation damages of climate change. This leads us to consider the very geographic concept of scale as a core component of legal ecologies: at what spatial or temporal scale is an entity liable for damages?

VW’s lawyers also point to uncertainties in downscaled climate modeling. They stress that the concrete consequences of climate change cannot be predicted for small-scale areas. Given modeling uncertainties, they argue that, for example, the expectation of large-scale climate-change-induced droughts says nothing about whether at all, when, and to what extent the plaintiff’s properties might be concretely affected. Here we can see knowledge politics at work, as companies attempt to leverage uncertainty to their benefit.

Other climate lawsuits, including those carried out by climate activist groups and Greenpeace, are still pending before German Regional and Higher Regional Courts. They, too, are calling on VW to stop selling cars that use internal combustion engines.

In Stuttgart and Munich, climate lawsuits are pending against the Mercedes and BMW, carried out by Deutsche Umwelthilfe e.V. (DUH). DUH is a German environmental, nature and consumer protection organization. DUH is a non-profit organization that serves as a consumer protection association, which makes it possible for them to bring an action under the Environmental Remedies Act. These lawsuits also attempt to advance climate justice by using the principle of legal liability in court.

Using the lens of “legal ecologies” illustrates how the people who are suffering from the impacts of climate change are seeking to renegotiate the question of responsibility in the courts. If these cases prove successful, global car manufactures such as VW, BMW, and Mercedes, as well as leading energy companies like RWE could be held accountable for their roles in contributing to climate change.

These lawsuits illustrate the potential for creative litigation to shape our shared ecological future within Germany and beyond.

For Further Reading

Climate Justice, Sustainability and Reparations