The Woman Who Led the Fight Against the Dutch Government (and Won)

This piece is a collobration between Jack McGovan of Delta S and Plan A. It is one in a series of pieces on the woman who made sustainability what it is today. All of the illustrations have been provided courtesy of Plan A. 

Suing the state for a lack of climate action is no easy task.

Sustainability. A word which becomes more important with time. A word whose meaning becomes more urgent with each passing year, week and day. Yet to me, this is a word which has shaped the direction of my life since I can remember. Nonetheless, along the journey to me writing this series, there’s an important point that sticks in my mind. It’s the point at which a lot of the views I hold today centre around.

During my first year at university I went to a event where I was exposed to the story of Marjan Minnesma and Urgenda. It’s the story of how one woman – with the support of her team – led the fight against the Dutch government, to sue them for their lack of action on climate change. It’s also the story of how they won. Given the personal significance of the story, I wanted to share it in the hopes that others may find inspiration in it as I did. 

The Urgenda story: using law to fight against climate change

In 2015, the Urgenda Climate Case occurred. However, despite the unique nature of the lawsuit and the historic victory, the court case isn’t as wide spread as it should be, at least on an international scale; given the complete lack of action by Western governments to our climate emergency, this is likely a positive from their perspective. In a nutshell, the case was a legal battle between the Dutch government and Urgenda – a foundation which was founded in 2008 with the goal of using legal action to accelerate our society to become a sustainable society, starting in the Netherlands. 

Leading the fight for Urgenda was Marjan, one of the co-founders and still the director to this day. In addition, the foundation represented 800 individual citizens in the case. As an NGO in the Netherlands, they have the right to do so. Their victory was announced on June 24th 2015, where “the District Court of The Hague ruled the government must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 (compared to 1990 levels)”.

Even though we’ve known about anthropogenic climate change for a few decades now, the reaction of the state was still to appeal the decision. In 2018, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Urgenda, using human rights – which climate change coincidentally has quite a large effect on – as their core argument. Following this, the state appealed to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country. As of today, no verdict has been publicised. 

The director 

As the commander at the forefront of the charge, the woman of the hour was and still remains an important part of the case. Born in 1966 in the Netherlands, Marjan has spent a large portion of her life in the field of sustainability, though she began by studying business administration before moving onto philosophy and environmental law. Professionally she has worked for organisations on different sides of the debate, such as Greenpeace, Shell or even the Dutch government; having collected some experience behind enemy lines is probably one of the reasons she has been so successful as the director of Urgenda. In addition, she worked for over 10 years at a variety of universities. It was at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam where she met her Urgenda co-founder Professor Rotmans.

However, one of the things I find most inspiring about Marjan isn’t her credentials, but her drive to action. After all, you don’t end up being named the most sustainable person in the Netherlands three years in a row for simply sitting around – and yes, I see the irony. For example, instead of flying to the COP21 in Paris in 2015, she spent almost a month walking the entire distance from the Netherlands. Along the way, she was accompanied by special guests on different days, who would then leave a milestone with a small message. All of this was done to raise awareness for one point: now is the time to act. In a world where media personalities preach about sustainability without changing their own behaviour, bringing the light to people like Marjan becomes more important. 

An inspiring story of climate action

For me, learning about her story was the first time I had seen someone’s actions align with what they were saying, at least in the realm of sustainability. It made me realise that despite my interest in creating a sustainable world, I was still in a way a kind of hypocrite. My goal as a chemistry student was to find a solution for our energy problems in the lab, yet it hadn’t even occurred to me to think about my own life and own behaviours, outside of switching off the lights every now and then. This is the point at which I realised that a technological solution to the climate crisis wasn’t the answer to all of our problems. I began to realise that the problem was much more nuanced, much more political and in turn much more personal too. Having figured that out, I felt like the best thing I go do for the sustainability movement, was to try and communicate this to a wider audience. And thus began the spark which led me into journalism. 

Hope for the future

Although the court case is still going on a few years later, it remains a prominent beacon of hope from the last few years. Taking on a government is no easy task, and Marjan’s courage to lead that process has led to other lawsuits in other parts of the world. This is further proof that taking action leads to results. Luckily in recent years, we have other females who have taken on a similar role, Greta Thunberg being one of the biggest examples. However, our next story takes us back in time, to explore one woman’s journey from planting trees to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Marjan’s story is always one which will stay with me, due to the profound impact it had on my life. Without her story, perhaps I’d be sitting now in a lab instead of behind my laptop writing this piece. In my eyes, I’m a living example of how she is not only an excellent role model to girls and women around the globe, but a role model for everyone who wants to win this fight for a sustainable future. 

This piece is a collobration between Jack McGovan of Delta S and Plan A. It is one in a series of pieces on the woman who made sustainability what it is today. All of the illustrations have been provided courtesy of Plan A. 

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Jack McGovan is a recent graduate in chemistry with a specialisation in ‘Energy and Sustainable Chemistry’ from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Following a job as a student journalist covering the energy transition, he has moved to Berlin where he is following his passion for working towards creating a fairer and more sustainable world. Seeing a gap in the way in which the world of science was communicated, he founded Delta-S. By writing source based content, he hopes to communicate his findings to a wider audience.