STRASBOURG, France — Six young people from Portugal will argue that governments across Europe aren’t doing enough to protect people from the harms of climate change at the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in the latest and largest instance of activists taking governments to court to force climate action.
The lawyers representing the young adults and children will argue that the 32 European governments they’re suing have failed to adequately address global warming and therefore violated some of their fundamental rights.
“This is truly a David and Goliath case,” said Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of the non-profit organization Global Legal Action Network that’s been crowdfunding to support the group.
“It is unprecedented in its scale and its consequences,” he said. “It also makes legal history. Never before have so many countries had to defend themselves in front of a court, anywhere in the world.”
Although there have been successful climate cases at national and regional levels — young environmentalists recently won a similar case in Montana — the activists’ legal team said that because national jurisdictions did not go far enough to protect their rights the group felt compelled to take the matter to the Strasbourg-based court.
Arguing that their rights to life, to privacy and family life, and to be free from discrimination are being violated, they hope a favorable ruling will force the 27 EU member countries, as well as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Russia and Turkey, to accelerate their climate efforts such as building renewable infrastructure and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
The court’s rulings are legally binding on member countries, and failure to comply makes authorities liable for hefty fines decided by the court.
“This judgement would act like a binding treaty imposed by the court on the respondents, requiring them to rapidly accelerate their climate mitigation efforts,” said lawyer Gerry Liston. “In legal terms, it would be a gamechanger.”
But the plaintiffs — who are between 11 and 24 years of age and are not seeking financial compensation — will need to convince judges that they have been sufficiently affected to be considered as victims. The group will also need to prove to the courts that governments have a legal duty to make sure global warming is held to 1.5 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Science is on the activists’ side.
The world is way off track on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C, scientists say, with global average temperatures projected to rise by 2 to 4 degrees C by 2100 at current trajectories of warming and emissions reductions plans.
As the world warms, climate scientists predict more frequent and more extreme weather events, from heavier flooding and rainfall to prolonged droughts and heat waves and increasingly intense storms.
Speaking at a news conference ahead of the hearing, the activists said climate change affects their daily lives and their studies, and damages both their physical and psychological well-being.
They started judicial action in the wake of a series of deadly wildfires in central Portugal in 2017, where four of them live. / AP