The landmark climate case is scheduled to begin on Wednesday at the European Court of Human Rights.
Sofía Oliveira was 12 years old when catastrophic wildfires in central Portugal killed more than 100 people in 2017.
She “felt like it was now or never to raise our voices” as her country appeared to be in the grip of deadly human-caused climate change.
Now, as a university student, Sofia is preparing to sue 32 European governments for failing to adequately address climate change.
She, along with five other Portuguese youths and children aged between 11 and 24, accuses those countries of violating their human rights. The case is scheduled to be heard at the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday, September 27.
It is the first climate change case to go to court and could force action to dramatically reduce emissions and build cleaner infrastructure.
A historical case of climate change
A win for them in Strasbourg would be a strong example of this Young They are taking a legal route to force their governments to adopt a radical recalibration of their climate measures.
The court’s rulings are legally binding on member states, and failure to comply with them makes the authorities vulnerable to heavy fines decided by the court.
the Courts Activists increasingly see it as a way to transcend politics and hold governments to account. Last month, in a case brought by young environmental activists, a judge in a US state Montana It ruled that state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment by allowing fossil fuel development.
Why do young people resort to suing European governments?
When the Portuguese group decided in 2017 that it would pursue the matter Legal actionSofia wore braces, was taller than her younger brother Andrei, and was starting seventh grade at school. The braces are long gone, and Andrei, now 15, is a few centimeters taller than her.
Andrei noted in one of the interviews that the past six years represent almost half of his life.
What has them reviewing stacks of legal documents compiled by the nonprofit group that supports them and through lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic is what they call the pressing evidence all around them that the climate crisis is getting worse.
Andre says that Praia do Norte beach on the Costa da Caparica, near where Sofia and Andre live, south of the Portuguese capital Lisbon, was about a kilometer long when his father was his age. Now, middle Coastal erosionIt measures less than 300 metres. Evidence like this led him to attend climate demonstrations even before he was a teenager.
The other four members of the Portuguese group – Catarina, Claudia, Martim and Mariana – are siblings and cousins who live in the Leiria region in central Portugal where summer forest fires are common.
Scientists say that the desert climate jumps across the Mediterranean to southern European countries such as Portugal, where average temperatures rise and precipitation decreases. Portugal’s hottest year on record was 1997, followed by 2017. The four driest years on record in the country of 10.3 million have occurred since 2003.
It’s a similar story across Europe, and the Portuguese Six’s legal arguments are backed by science. The Earth was extremely hot during the hottest Northern Hemisphere summer ever measured, with… Register warm August is the end of the season for extreme and deadly temperatures, according to the World Meteorological Organization.
Scientists say the world is still far from pledging to limit global warming by cutting emissions in line with the requirements of the 2015 agreement. Paris climate agreement. It is estimated that average global temperatures could rise by 2 to 4 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times by 2100 under current temperature rising trajectories and emissions reduction plans.
How can inadequate climate change policies violate human rights?
Among the specific effects he mentioned young man The Portuguese plaintiffs are unable to sleep, concentrate, play outside or exercise during heatwaves. One of their schools was temporarily closed when the air became unbreathable due to wildfire smoke. A little bit of the children They have health conditions such as asthma that make them more vulnerable to heat and air pollution.
They are assisted by the Global Legal Action Network, an international non-profit organization that challenges human rights Violations. The crowdfunding campaign has attracted support from around the world, with messages of support arriving from as far away as Japan, India and Brazil.
Gerry Liston, GLAN’s legal officer, says the 32 governments have “downplayed” the issue. “Governments have resisted every aspect of our case…all our arguments,” he says.
Andre describes governments as “transcendent.”
“They don’t consider climate a priority,” Sofia adds.
The government of Portugal, for example, agrees that the state of the environment and human rights are linked, but insists that “the government’s actions seek to fulfill its international obligations in this area” and cannot be criticized.
Are European governments sticking to their climate pledges?
At the same time, some governments in Europe have backed away from commitments they have already made.
Last month, Poland filed legal challenges aimed at overturning three major EU climate change policies. last week, British The government announced it would postpone for five years the ban on new gas and diesel cars, which was due to come into effect in 2030.
the Swedish Meanwhile, the government’s state budget proposal last week reduced taxes on gas and diesel and cut funding for climate and environmental measures.
In the midst of these developments, activists look to the courts as a refuge.
The London School of Economics says the cumulative number of climate changes is relevant globally cases Their number has doubled since 2015 to more than 2,000. About a quarter of them were launched between 2020 and 2022, she says.
When will the court reach its ruling?
The Portuguese activists, who are not demanding any financial compensation, will likely have to wait longer. A ruling on their case could take up to 18 months, although they view the court’s decision in 2020 to speed up proceedings as an encouraging sign.
There is also a precedent that gives activists a heart. The Urgenda Foundation, a Dutch organization that works to promote sustainability and innovation, brought against the Dutch government the world’s first case in which citizens claimed their government had a legal obligation to prevent dangerous climate change.
In 2019, Dutch The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Urgenda, ruling that the government’s emissions reduction target was unlawfully low. The authorities were ordered to continue reducing emissions.
As a result, the government decided to close coal-fired power plants by 2030, and adopted €1 billion packages to reduce energy use and develop renewable energy, among other measures.
Dennis Van Berkel UrgendaThe IMF’s legal advisor accused governments of choosing “politically expedient” climate change targets instead of listening to climate scientists. He said judges could force them to justify that what they are doing on climate issues is enough.
He added: “At the present time there is no such scrutiny at any level.” “This is a very important thing that the courts can contribute.”
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