Young people take European nations to court over climate failures

By Melissa Chemam with RFI
Climate  Global Legal Action Network
SEP 25, 2023 LISTEN
© Global Legal Action Network

Six young European people will bring 32 countries before the European Court of Human Rights for failing to do their part to avert climate catastrophe. The unprecedented hearing, to be held this week, is the world's largest climate legal action to date.

After witnessing devastating forest fires and experiencing ever-worsening heatwaves, six young people from Portugal decided to act.

Aged between 11 and 24 years old, they launched an unprecedented case against over 32 European countries in the European Court of Human Rights in September 2020.

Three years later, their case will be heard on Wednesday, 27 September.

The applicants argue that European Union member states have contributed to global warming with greenhouse gas emissions, which has resulted, among other things, in heatwaves affecting their living conditions and health.

Collective action

The claimants are supported by activists from Youth 4 Climate Justice and Avaaz, and they are represented by lawyers Stéphanie Caligara and Gearóid Ó Cuinn, of the Dublin-based human rights NGO Global Legal Action Network (GLAN).

"These young people are not even activists," Caligara told RFI. "They are just young people who have been deeply affected by the firesin the Leiria region and by devastating heatwaves, so they wanted to act.

The claimants say they were driven to act by their experiences in the wildfires that ripped through the Leiria region in Portugal in 2017, killing 66 people and destroying 20,000 hectares of forest.

“Climate change has had a profound impact on our lives," 18-year-old claimant Sofia dos Santos Oliveira said in a statement.

"It has limited our ability to partake in activities like going out and enjoying the day. It is not normal, heatwaves damage our daily lives.”  

David vs. Goliath

"This is truly a David and Goliath case," said Ó Cuinn. "It is unprecedented in its scale and consequences.

"It also makes legal history. Never before have so many countries had to defend themselves in front of any court anywhere in the world."

The countries named in the action are the 27 members of the EU, as well as Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

The hearing comes following the hottest ever summer in Europe on record, with fires and floods ravaging the European continent and beyond.

The case has been supported by a global crowdfunding appeal that raised more than 138,000 euros.

The claimants hope the judges will issue a binding that would force the countries to rapidly escalate their emissions reductions.

Lawyer Caligara hopes the court will recognise that "the inaction of governments affects negatively the right to life of the claimants", and that countries will finally take the "drastic measures" needed to cut carbon emissions.

A successful outcome for the claimants would be a historic milestone in climate litigation, and would require the 32 countries named not only to ramp up emissions cuts, but also to tackle their overseas contributions to climate change, including their exports of fossil fuels.