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Peruvian farmer squares up to German power giant in climate lawsuit

TEPIC, Mexico - In Peru's snow-capped Cordillera Blanca mountains, fast-melting glaciers are pushing the cobalt waters of Lake Palcacocha dangerously high, raising fears it could overflow and send a huge wave of water and mud crashing to the town of Huaraz below.

Huaraz farmer and mountain guide Saúl Luciano Lliuya, who blames the world's biggest emitters for the warmer temperatures shrinking the glaciers, will appeal his civil case on Monday against German utility RWE, which he thinks should contribute to reinforcing the lake – even though it has no operations in Peru.

"The glacial melt is very fast there and some glaciers are about to disappear due to global warming," Luciano, a 38-year-old father of two, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Germany.

"Those responsible are the big industries that have burned coal... that have burned petroleum. The main objective of what we want to achieve is that these businesses stop polluting."

The case against RWE, which ranks as one of Europe's biggest polluters due to its coal-fired power stations, is being closely watched as climate change lawsuits slowly stack up against some of the world's biggest oil, power and industrial firms.

The claim brought by Luciano - whose Quechua-speaking family farms potatoes, corn and a few animals – accuses RWE of emitting carbon dioxide and helping raise global temperatures.

It seeks about $20,000 which would help fund a $4-million local government scheme to prevent flooding from the lake.

"This is the thin end of the wedge," said Justin Gundlach, a fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

"If this case causes a court to declare that a utility is liable for greenhouse gas emissions in Peru, then all of a sudden, a million plaintiffs will bloom and you can expect a lot of people to bang, not only on German courthouse doors, but others as well."

Last year, the regional court in RWE's home city of Essen dismissed Luciano's case, saying there were countless emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide and any flooding risk linked to the melting of glacial ice could not stem solely from RWE.

The higher regional court in Hamm will hear Monday's appeal from Luciano, whose claim is supported by environmental non-profit Germanwatch.

In an email, RWE reiterated its position that there was no legal basis to the claim it says does not comply with German civil law. The company said it was not judicially possible to relate "specific/individual consequences of climate change to a single emitter".

‘Taking responsibility’

Roda Verheyen, Luciano's Hamburg-based lawyer, said the case was "not about guilt". "It's about taking responsibility for what they have done and what they continue to do," she said.

The amount sought is based on estimates that RWE was responsible for around 0.5 percent of global historical industrial emissions, so should pay 0.5 percent of the cost of measures to stop Palcacocha overflowing, she added.

Should the court rule in favor of Luciano, a scientist could then be appointed to consider the link between RWE's emissions and the glacial melting, said Verheyen.

Despite measures to drain the lake, Palcacocha's levels are much higher than in 1941 when a falling chunk of glacial ice caused a huge wave and mudslide that killed up to 5,000 people in Huaraz, some 22 km (14 miles) away.

Villagers now monitor the lake and give regular updates by radio or satellite phone, providing a warning system for the area where up to 50,000 people are at risk from flooding, said Noah Walker-Crawford, an anthropologist advising Luciano.

"It's not a solution for every small-scale farmer to file a lawsuit against a large emitter," he said. "There should be international mechanisms or solutions for these people who are affected by climate change to receive support, and at the moment, there's nothing like that."

Proof elusive?

A handful of Californian cities and counties have brought public nuisance suits against major oil companies, seeking billions of dollars to help protect against rising sea levels they blame on climate change.

Separately, prosecutors for New York and Massachusetts are investigating ExxonMobil over the possibility it misled investors about the risks of climate change.

And last year, a rights group in the Philippines asked 47 global oil, mining and cement firms to answer a complaint that their carbon emissions caused human rights violations.

While legal experts compare these cases to the long-running legal battles against tobacco, asbestos or pesticide manufacturers over harm to human health, some say it could be much harder to establish the link between individual emitters and climate change impacts.

But they agree the RWE case could be the tip of the iceberg.

"I don't believe these cases will go away even if we lose this one, because the damage is there and people will not stop trying to get their rights in front of the judiciary," said Verheyen. — Reuters