Six young people are preparing to appear at the European court of human rights to try to compel 32 nations to rapidly escalate their emissions reductions in the world’s largest climate legal action to date.
Aged from 11 to 24, the six Portuguese claimants, say they were driven to act by their experiences in the wildfires that ripped through the Leiria region in 2017, killing 66 people and destroying 20,000 hectares of forest.
After another summer in which wildfires raged across Portugal, Greece, Spain, Croatia and Italy, the young people will argue in the grand chamber of the Strasbourg court in 13 days’ time that the 32 European nations’ policies to tackle global heating are inadequate and in breach of their human rights obligations.
Crowdfunded by people around the world, who have donated more than £100,000, they are seeking a binding ruling from the judges to force the countries to rapidly escalate their emissions reductions in what would be a historic milestone in climate litigation.
“This case is unprecedented in its scale and its consequence. Never before have so many countries had to defend themselves in front of any court anywhere in the world,” said Gearóid Ó Cuinn, of Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which is supporting the claimants.
One of the claimants, André dos Santos Oliveira, 15, said: “These European governments are failing to protect us. We are living in the face of climate impacts across Europe. In Portugal this summer we experienced heatwaves which are getting worse and worse. Our ability to do anything, to live our lives, is becoming restricted. The climate crisis is affecting our physical health and our mental health. How could you not be scared?”
The claimants began their action six years ago, a few months after the wildfires in Leiria. They say they are already experiencing significant impacts of climate change, in particular increasing heatwaves, which restrict their daily lives, studies and outdoor activities; exacerbate health conditions, such as asthma, and affect their mental health.
Lawyers will present evidence that the current policies of the 32 countries mean the world is on track to reach 3 C of global heating within the lifetime of the young people. “This July the temperatures in Leiria reached more than 40 C,” said one claimant, Catarina Mota, 23. “It is so difficult to comprehend that this is just the beginning in terms of the extreme heat. Our experts say at 3 C there will be even more extreme heatwaves which last for a month or more. This will be unbelievable. Governments around the world have the power to stop this. European governments are choosing not to take their part. We cannot stand by and watch this happening.”
André is taking time off school to attend the hearing in Strasbourg on September 27 in front of 17 ECHR judges. He will travel by bus and train with his fellow claimants for the hearing.
“I will be there, I have to be, I could not be anywhere else,” he said.
“The thing that scares me the most is that it has all got worse since the fires in 2017,” he said. “We have had record-breaking heatwaves since then, we are losing our planet and it is very scary.”
“Here in Portugal, we are one of the worst-affected countries. We had 43 C this year; that is extremely hot, it was hotter than Dubai. It is not normal. I am trying to build my life, to go to school and to study, but it is hard to concentrate in such heat, it is hard to sleep, and then it is hard to study again. It impacts on my whole life.”
The case argues that the human rights of the six young people are not being upheld by the European nations: their right to life, their right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment, their right to privacy and family life, and their right to be free from discrimination.
In documents submitted to the court, the nations are dismissive of the claims, denying in many cases that climate change is a threat to human wellbeing at all.
The Greek government, which has battled with the devastating impact of hundreds of deadly wildfires and floods this summer, said in its defense: “The effects of climate change as recorded so far do not seem to directly affect human life or human health.”
Vassilis Kikilias, the Greek minister for climate change and civil protection, said this summer: “The climate crisis that brought us this unprecedented heatwave is here. It’s not a theory. It is our actual experience.”
But his government’s defense to the legal case states: “An absolute cause and effect relationship between climate change and the effect on human health cannot be established … there is great uncertainty about whether the final mortality balance will be positive or negative.”
The Irish government rejected the claimants’ argument, saying they had not established an imminent or immediate risk to their lives. The Portuguese government said the claim consisted only of “future fears, constituting only mere assumptions or general probabilities.”
Gerry Liston, a senior lawyer at GLAN, said the action was being taken against the 32 nations in Europe because they all contributed to the climate crisis and action was required from them all to safeguard the future of the young people.
“These young people face a future of unbearable heat. The latest IPCC report describes these conditions as unlivable,” Liston said. “Yet these governments are trivializing their claims. We expect to hear more of the same from all of the nations in the courtroom.
“But our case is really very simple—the harm that climate change is causing, and will continue to cause, to the mental and physical health of these young people and to their wellbeing, is a clear violation of their human rights.”
The countries named in the action are the 27 members of the EU (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden) as well as Norway, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Turkey.