In the fight against climate change, one tool is proving increasingly popular: litigation. From the U.S. to Europe and India, activists, governments and concerned citizens have turned to the courts. Supporters want them to force oil companies and governments to pay for past harms and avert future threats.

Are international companies vulnerable?

Yes. In May Royal Dutch Shell Plc was ordered by a Dutch court to slash its emissions harder and faster than planned, a ruling that could have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the global fossil fuel industry. Shell, which said it expects to appeal the ruling, has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% within a decade, and to net-zero before 2050. That’s not enough, according to the court in The Hague, which ordered the oil producer to slash emissions 45% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels. The court said the ruling applies to the entire Shell group, raising the prospect of the company having to radically speed up its current climate and divestment policies in order to hit the new target. It’s unlikely Shell will be the only company to fall foul of the courts as the Dutch decision will likely trigger similar cases around Europe, if not the world.

So it’s about human rights?

Yes, human-rights arguments are a small but growing approach. Plaintiffs make the case that climate change has threatened or taken away the basic rights to shelter, health, food, water and even life.