A former NASA physicist dubbed the 'father of climate change awareness' says if the world wants to seriously tackle the problem of global warming, it's high time to sue the polluters responsible for it.

Climate scientist James Hansen says by suing 'carbon majors' – a rogue's gallery of 100 companies responsible for more than 70 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions in the last 30 years – the world could raise vital funds necessary to help protect our rapidly warming planet.

"The judicial system is the only way to get the funds needed to deal with climate change," Hansen told National Geographic.

"Legislation won't work because that's where lobbyists rule."

In a presentation this week alongside COP23 – the United Nations climate conference currently being held in Bonn, Germany – Hansen, together with his granddaughter, 18-year-old Sophie Kivlehan, made the case for why legal action could be the last chance to avert what Hansen thinks is a looming climate catastrophe.

Most scientists don't tend to show up at press conferences with their grandkids in tow, but this time there's a good reason for it.

Hansen and Kivlehan are together leading an ongoing lawsuit suing the US government for inaction on climate change.

hansen testimyclr hiresHansen in 1988 (James Hansen)

What makes the lawsuit even more remarkable is the group of plaintiffs bringing the case: many are children, some as young as eight when the proceedings began.

That's because the gist of the case is that by failing to rein in environmental degradation – which threatens the future world children will grow up in – the government has violated young people's Constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, the plaintiffs argue.

"I am afraid and angry at the problems that greedy and foolish adults have created," Kivlehan said in Germany.

"No civil rights issue in history has ever been solved without the pressure of the public behind it. So the main goal is to show the government that that pressure is there."

But legal action shouldn't just be reserved for the government, Hansen thinks.

The biggest commercial polluters who for decades have profited from environmental degradation should also be targeted, he says, so that money can be raised to help pay for the high costs of climate action.

"Funding is required," Hansen says.

"As a matter of justice it should be extracted from those who benefitted most from fossil fuel burning – the so-called carbon majors."

These carbon majors were identified in a report released in July, which outlined how 100 companies were responsible for producing 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

Coincidentally, 1988 was also the year Hansen rose to prominence outside research and NASA circles, when he testified before a US Senate committee about the science of climate change, helping to plant the issue of global warming squarely in the public's consciousness.

Since then, he's been at the forefront of climate research, predicting just how bad things might get if we don't aggressively cut down on atmospheric pollutants, and mapping what the results could look like if we fail.

Whether his latest impassioned plea will help galvanise greater action on climate remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: he's not going to quit fighting.

"Courts are able now to assert jurisdiction to require fossil fuel polluters to pay their fair share," he says.

"Let us not sugarcoat the truth: as long as we allow fossil fuels to be cheap energy, not required to pay their costs to society, we cannot kick our fossil fuel addiction… The period of consequence requires honesty and courage. Nothing less will do."