Climate Change Could Destroy His Home in Peru. So He Sued an Energy Company in Germany.

Local communities are taking the world’s largest polluters to court. And they’re using the legal strategy that got tobacco companies to pay up.


In the mountains far above the red-brick city, behind a locked gate, there is a great, green valley. Its high stone walls are streaked by waterfalls; its floor dotted with flowers and grazed by horses and cows. Six boulder-strewn miles beyond the gate, the valley ends abruptly at an enormous wall of rock and ice. Beneath it lies a stretch of calm, bright water in milky turquoise — Lake Palcacocha. Though few of its residents have ever seen this lake, the city below lives in fear of it.

On Dec. 13, 1941, a piece broke off a hanging glacier and fell into Palcacocha, creating a great wave that overwhelmed a natural dam and sent a flood surging toward Huaraz, a provincial capital in the Peruvian Andes, about 14 miles below. A third of the city was destroyed and at least 1,800 people were killed. In response, the government reinforced the natural dam and installed drainage tubes to lower the level of the lake. Huaraz boomed to 130,000 inhabitants from 20,000. Occasionally there was a scare — a rock slide into the lake in 2003 sloshed a smaller amount of water over the edge, causing panic — but to many people in Huaraz the danger began to seem remote. Until it became clear that the lake was getting bigger.

In 2009, glaciologists found that amid the widespread melting of Andean ice, the amount of water held in Palcacocha had increased by 3,400 percent over just a couple of decades. Even more worrying, this melt associated with climate change was destabilizing the glaciers hanging above it, making major avalanches more likely. The regional government declared a state of emergency and began posting guardians to watch the lake around the clock.

The guardians of the lake live above Palcacocha, in a little stone house with a tin roof. It was built by hand from nearby rocks and has no insulation, though at 15,000 feet the air is thin and the cold brutal, even in summer. There is no heat apart from a cook fire, and few supplies: raincoats, warm blankets, flashlights for working at night, snowshoes for working in winter.

On a cold summer day in February, I looked up from the lake to see a man descending a zigzagging trail. He walked lightly across loose boulders to the water’s edge, where a large ruler pierced the surface. He read it, and then turned to climb the switchbacks back to the hut, where a radio was wired to what looked like a car battery. It was his job, shared with two other men, to report on the status of the water levels every two hours, day and night.

Lake Palcacocha in the Peruvian Andes. Felipe Fittipaldi for The New York Times

The man introduced himself as Víctor Morales, one of the guardians. I followed him up to the hut, where we listened to the rumble of falling ice echoing repeatedly off the high walls around the lake. Seeing me jump as yet another distant waterfall of white tumbled down, Morales laughed and said in Spanish: “Little! Just a little avalanche.” He would mark the activity on his next report, he said, as “minimal,” far less than the fall two weeks before, which raised 12-foot waves in the placid lake. That one he described, with a shrug, as “regularcito.” Should a more substantial avalanche happen, something that researchers consider a significant risk, the resulting flood would careen down the valley, overwhelming houses and farms until it arrived in Huaraz. According to the best available estimates, even without a collapse of the glacial moraine, a wall of rock that serves as the lake’s natural dam, which is considered unlikely, a large avalanche could lead to the inundation of 154 city blocks and more than 6,000 deaths. The regional government has considered various solutions: lowering the lake level by another 60 to 100 feet; creating a more technologically advanced early-warning system with sensors and sirens; plastering the city with evacuation maps. “We want a map in every schoolchild’s notebook,” César Portocarrero Rodríguez, an engineer and glaciologist in Huaraz, says.

One of the first neighborhoods to be flooded would be Nueva Florida, blocks of brick-and-adobe homes that edge the stream from the canyon. Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a soft-spoken, 39-year-old farmer and father of two who also works as a mountain guide during the tourist season, lives there in a bright yellow house, across the street from Morales’s parents; the families have known each other for decades. Many people in Huaraz, Luciano Lliuya told me, don’t fully appreciate the sacrifices that the guardians make to do their jobs — in part because they don’t fully realize the dangers of deglaciation. Over the years, Luciano Lliuya has seen lakes expanding and avalanches increasing and ice retreating with every climb; he has seen farmers begin to argue over diminishing clean water. The loss of ice, it is clear to him, means a future that’s more uncertain in all kinds of ways. “I depend, in every sense, on the mountain,” he told me. “It is everything.”

One day, five years ago, Luciano Lliuya sat talking with a friend about the many changes and costs that climate change is bringing to the Andes, whose residents have, by global standards, done very little to contribute to the problem. “We wondered,” he said, “whether we could find los responsables” — the responsible ones — and somehow persuade them to change their behavior. He wanted, fervently, to find a way to stop the ice from melting even more.

Luciano Lliuya’s friend introduced him to a contact at a nongovernment organization called Germanwatch, based in Bonn, that works to promote equity between developed and less-developed countries. In 2015, with the group’s support, Luciano Lliuya, who had never left his country, traveled 6,500 miles to file a lawsuit against RWE, Germany’s largest energy utility. The lawsuit claimed that the company, though it does not operate in Peru, had contributed about half of 1 percent of the emissions that are causing the global climate to change and that it should therefore be responsible for half of 1 percent of the cost of containing the lake that might destroy Luciano Lliuya’s house. His claim entered the courts in the form of a demand for $19,000.

“There weren’t high hopes,” Luciano Lliuya said — either that a lawsuit would have any real effect on how quickly the glaciers were melting or that he would actually be able to make the case, in court, that Huaraz’s woes were the fault of a company an ocean away. But he didn’t know what else to do, and he felt he had to do something: “It was like ... a shout.”

Luciano Lliuya at home with his daughter Gleysi. Felipe Fittipaldi for The New York Times

Legal systems have long struggled with the best way to respond when individuals have been harmed by others. Who qualifies as a victim, and what counts as a misdeed? How can harm be traced and measured? If it can’t be undone, what might make things right? Nearly 4,000 years ago, the Code of Hammurabi decreed harsh restitution for dozens of situations. If, for example, someone failed to maintain his dam and it failed, flooding a neighbor’s fields, the negligent dam owner should “be sold for money, and the money shall replace the corn which he has caused to be ruined.” Anglo-Saxon law offered wergild, set amounts to be paid by offenders to the families of their victims, in atonement for murder or adultery. In seventh-century Kent, the lives of freemen were valued at 100 shillings, noblemen at 300.

In the modern era, common-law countries such as the United States have turned to the courts to sift through the complexities of injury, causation and remedy. Common law, as distinct from statutory law, applies in situations where no legislative guidelines have been set and courts instead respond to cases as they happen — leaning on, and adding to, centuries of accumulated decisions interpreting the basic legal idea that individuals have uninfringible rights. Modern cases that take on environmental damage rest on a heritage that includes, for example, William Aldred’s complaint, in the early 1600s, that the stench from a pigsty built by his neighbor Thomas Benton made his home unbearable.

Source: The New York Times

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