Story by Sarah Kaplan

Photos by Angela Ponce for the Washington Post

Videos by Kevin Ylan Zacarias Zumaeta

Aug. 28

THE CORDILLERA BLANCA, Peru — Once, this was where Saúl Luciano Lliuya came to find peace. The mountain’s pristine beauty ensured his livelihood as a guide; its steady stream of fresh water sustained his family farm. The everlasting ice that gleamed from its rugged crest spoke of a world in balance.

But on this May morning, Luciano Lliuya surveyed Nevado Palcaraju with his eyes narrowed, his forehead creased. The glacier was almost gone, transformed by rising temperatures from solid ice into a large, unstable lagoon. At any moment, an avalanche or rockslide could cause the turquoise meltwater to surge over its banks, hurtle down the mountainside and deluge the city of Huaraz, where he and some 120,000 others lived.

Muy pensativo,” Luciano Lliuya described his mood in Spanish. Overthinking. Under pressure.

For seven years, Luciano Lliuya has waged a lawsuit against the German energy company RWE — part of a growing cohort of activists who have turned to the courts for climate justice as political solutions remain out of reach.

Citing scientific studies that link pollution from power plants to the retreat of Palcaraju’s glacier, Luciano Lliuya argues that the energy giant should help pay for measures to prevent a catastrophic flood. The company’s lawyers counter that all of its operations were legal, and that the link between greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts is too complex for any single entity to be held responsible.

Now the court had come to Peru to collect on-the-ground evidence — a global first for any climate case.

In the next few days, a cadre of German judges and technical experts would walk the streets of Huaraz and view the homes that could be inundated. They would ascend the rutted road to Palcaraju, examining the glacier from the very spot where Luciano Lliuya stood.

FROM TOP: Saúl Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian farmer and mountain guide who filed a lawsuit against the German energy company RWE, visits Laguna Palcacocha in Huaraz, Peru, on May 23. An overhead view of the siphons installed in the lagoon to reduce the danger of flooding in Huaraz. Workers examine the siphons at Laguna Palcacocha. Luciano Lliuya worries that the melting of the snow-capped Palcaraju glacier could cause an avalanche or rockslide at any moment.

If the judges saw this place the way he saw it, if they were convinced by Luciano Lliuya’s claims, it would mark a breakthrough in the burgeoning realm of climate litigation. Success in Huaraz would mean that major polluters anywhere may be liable for the increasingly disastrous consequences of greenhouse gas emissions, experts say. It could pave the way for more lawsuits from developing nations that did little to cause climate change, but are bearing the brunt of its impacts. It might force rich countries and giant corporations to reconsider the risks of relying on fossil fuels, and empower those on the front lines of warming to seek restitution for what they have lost.

Luciano Lliuya looked again across the water, where the remains of Palcaraju glacier still clung to the cliffs above the lagoon. So much depended on that precarious balance: His livelihood. His home. Possibly even the planet.

Then there was a low rumble, and a puff of white billowed from the top of the glacier — an avalanche. It was minor, not powerful enough to even ruffle the surface of the lake. But the worry in Luciano Lliuya’s eyes deepened.

Vámonos,” he said. “Let’s go.”


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