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Another Climate Victory in Europe… and Counting

Credit: Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON, Apr 25 2024 (IPS) - A group of senior Swiss women recently won a powerful victory offering renewed hope for tackling climate change. Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the government of Switzerland is violating human rights because it isn’t doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Swiss women take the lead

More than 2,000 Swiss women with an average age of 73 backed the case, coming together in the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz (Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland) group. They argued that their rights to family life and privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights are being breached because they’re particularly vulnerable to premature death due to extreme heat.

The evidence from Europe’s recent heatwaves is grim: over 70,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of high temperatures in 2022. Older people are more vulnerable to heatwaves, with women the worst hit. In Switzerland, older women had the highest level of deaths during the 2022 heatwave.

The favourable ruling is a landmark. While there’ve been several judgments in favour of climate action by national-level courts in recent years, this is the first time the European Court has ruled that lack of action on climate change violates human rights, and the first time any international human rights court has recognised that people have a right to be protected from climate change.

It won’t be the last. At least six more climate cases await the European Court, including one brought against the Norwegian government by Greenpeace Nordic, arguing that plans to expand fossil fuel extraction in Arctic waters violate human rights. National-level courts may also draw on the European Court’s precedent. More litigation is sure to follow.

Growing field

The case was one of three the Court considered, and the only to succeed. Lawsuits brought by a group of young Portuguese people against 32 European states and by a French politician against France were both dismissed – but on procedural grounds, rather than on the merits of the cases. The one victory was a triumph for all, since everyone will benefit from the emissions cuts that should result.

In many climate court cases, young people are making the running, rightly arguing that climate change affects them disproportionately, since it impinges on the rights of their future selves. But the young Portuguese campaigners acknowledged the vital contribution their older Swiss counterparts have made, showing how vital solidarity between generations is for civil society struggles.

Climate campaigners are making growing use of litigation to hold governments and corporations to account for their failure to act on the climate crisis. Over 1,500 climate litigation cases have been filed since the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015, and more than half have had favourable outcomes. There’s a growing trend of climate litigants framing their cases around human rights agreements they argue are being breached when governments and corporations don’t take adequate action.

Among recent successes, last November the Brussels Court of Appeal imposed a binding emissions cut target on Belgian authorities following a human rights lawsuit. That same month, a German court ruled that the government must immediately adopt an action programme on emissions targets for construction and transport. In August 2023, 16 young activists won a case in Montana, USA, with the court ruling that the state government’s policies in support of fossil fuels violate their right to a healthy environment.

Another breakthrough came in India this month when the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Indian citizens have a fundamental right to be free from the harmful impacts of climate change, on the basis that the constitution guarantees the rights to life and equality. Meanwhile human rights-based climate cases are currently proceeding in countries including Brazil, Peru and South Korea, where the Constitutional Court has just begun to hear a lawsuit brought by young people and children.

One of the rulings the Indian Supreme Court considered in coming to its conclusions was a 2015 verdict that ordered the Dutch government to take stronger action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, showing how a judgment in one jurisdiction can help build a case in another.

Open civic space needed

Legal action takes time. It took the Swiss campaigners almost eight years, having been required to exhaust all avenues offered by their domestic legal system reaching the European Court.

Litigation will remain just one of the many vital tools used by climate campaigners, alongside high-level advocacy towards national governments and in global processes such as COP climate summits, consumer pressure, shareholder activism, campaigns for fossil fuel divestment, street protests and non-violent direct action.

But at precisely the time civil society is showing how much it’s needed, its ability to act is being squeezed, particularly by restrictions on protest rights. It’s a sad fact that activists resisting fossil fuel extraction in many global south countries have long been repressed. But in a disturbing trend over the last couple of years, many global north states are targeting climate campaigners.

Recently, the German and Italian authorities have criminalised activists with laws against organised crime, police in the Netherlands have detained thousands of protesters and the UK government has passed anti-protest laws and jailed peaceful campaigners. These growing restrictions could have the effect of sapping the energies and depleting the ranks of the climate movement at a time when it’s needed the most.

European states should take heed of the European Court’s ruling, acknowledge that climate change is a human rights issue and commit to both cutting their emissions and respecting the civic space for climate activism.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


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