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Young climate activists take on European countries in a landmark court case

The lawyers representing the young adults and children claim the 32 European governments they’re suing have failed to adequately address global warming and therefore violated some of their fundamental rights.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

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, in the latest and largest instance of activists taking governments to court to force climate action.

The lawyers representing the young adults and children claim that the 32 European governments they’re suing have failed to adequately address global warming and therefore violated some of their fundamental rights.

“We’ve put forward evidence to show that it’s within the power of states to do vastly more to adjust their emissions, and they are choosing not do it,” lawyer Gerry Liston told The Associated Press at the start of the day-long hearing.

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,” Liston said. “In legal terms, it would be a gamechanger.”

Young climate activists take on European nations in a landmark court case
Wildfires in northeastern Greece in August. The lawsuit argues that governments across Europe aren't doing enough to protect people from the harms of climate change.Achilleas Chiras / AP

Liston said a ruling in favor of the group would also help future climate cases taken at domestic level by providing guidance to national courts.

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 (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

“We have put forward evidence before the court that all of the respondents’ state climate policies are aligned to 3 degrees (Celsius) of warming within the lifetime of the applicants, or in the case of some states, worse than that,” Liston said. “”No state has put forward evidence to counter that position.”

Science is on the activists’ side.

The world is way off track on limiting warming to 1.5 C, scientists say, with global average temperatures projected to rise by 2 to 4 degrees C (2.6 to 7.2 F) by 2100 on 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.

The activists said climate change affects their daily lives and their studies, and damages both their physical and psychological well-being.

Young climate activists take on European nations in a landmark court case
Activists protest outside the European Court of Human Right in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday.Jean-Francois Badias / AP

They started judicial action in the wake of a series of deadly wildfires in central Portugal in 2017, where four of them live.

“It’s 43 degrees (109 F) one day, and the next it’s hail, and that’s dangerous because we can’t predict what’s going to happen,” said 15-year-old André Oliveira, adding that the heat wave that hit Portugal in May hindered his schoolwork.

“I had exams and I tried to study for them, but it’s hard to concentrate,” André said. And it’s not just the physical effects, he said. “The climate crisis affects our mental health because it makes us worried about our future. How could we not be scared?”

André’s sister, Sofia, said her brother suffers from asthma and couldn’t go outside without feeling suffocated when temperatures hit an unusually warm 30 C (86 F) in winter this year.

“Governments around the world have the power to stop this, and Europe’s governments are choosing not to stop this,” said 23-year-old Catarina dos Santos Mota, another member of the group. “Since we started our action, we have felt the impact of the climate crisis getting worse and worse. In 2023, July was the hottest month on record. It is terrifying to think this is just the beginning.”

It’s the first climate case to be filed with the court. Two other climate cases — one by an association of senior women against Switzerland, the other by a French lawmaker against France — have been brought before the court since.

Members of the association of elderly people traveled to Strasbourg in support of the young Portuguese. They stood in front of the courthouse before the hearing, alongside a few dozens of other supporters.

“I wish them a future, because they are very young. When they saw everything burning around them, all the catastrophes, they realized they would not have a future,” said Anne Mahrer, the group’s co-president. “We probably won’t be there to see it, but if we win, everybody wins.”

A decision is not expected for several months. It’s still unclear whether the court will deliver its ruling on all three climate cases at the same time.