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Why are six young Portuguese citizens taking 32 nations to court?
Six Portuguese youth are suing European governments for not adequately addressing climate change, saying the delay constitutes a violation of their human rights
Six young Portuguese people brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2020 — the hearing for which will be held on Wednesday, 27 September — alleging that 32 nations have failed to act on global warming. The six, now aged 11 to 24, claim they are suffering from "having to live with a climate that is getting hotter and hotter".
The complaint to the Strasbourg-based court was sparked by wildfires that hit Portugal in 2017, killing more than 100 people and destroying swathes of land.
Some of the plaintiffs say they have suffered allergies and breathing problems since the fires and that the conditions are likely to persist if nothing is done.
"European governments are not managing to protect us," said 15-year-old Andre Oliveira, one of the six who brought the suit. "We're on the frontlines of climate change in Europe: even in February it's sometimes 30 degrees (Celsius, or 86 Fahrenheit). The heatwaves are getting more and more serious."
The plaintiffs said all 27 European Union member states — along with Russia, Turkey, Switzerland, Norway and Britain — have failed to sufficiently limit greenhouse gas emissions, damaging their lives and health.
They argue that the failure to act infringes on their rights to life and respect for private life under Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
National courts could be ordered to cut carbon dioxide emissions if the complaint is upheld.
"Today, we will stand up at the ECHR to argue for our rights and our future," the applicants, who are all attending the hearing in person, wrote on social media.
Six lawyers represent the applicants, while more than 80 lawyers represent the accused countries. Gerry Liston, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, has admitted that "taking on the legal teams of over 30 very well-resourced countries" would not be easy.
Portugal's legal team has told the court that it is dedicated to fighting climate change, and also that the applicants have not provided direct evidence of the impact on them.
The UK argued that the plaintiffs should have gone through national courts first and that since they are not nationals of the countries they are attacking, other than Portugal, the ECHR should not yet have jurisdiction.
The case focuses on countries whose policies, lawyers argue, are too weak to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) Paris Agreement goal, and cite the country ratings of the Climate Action Tracker.
The plaintiffs range come from Lisbon and Leiria in Portugal. Their case states that climate change poses a rising threat to their lives, and physical and mental well-being. It invokes human rights arguments — including the right to life, a home and to family — as well as claiming discrimination.
"Our generation is living in an age of great danger and uncertainty, so our voice must be heard," Andre Oliveira told DW in 2020 when the case was initially filed with the ECHR. Andre is now 15.
"It's clearly not the case that young people are the only ones vulnerable to the effects of climate change," said Liston in 2020. "But because they stand to endure the worst impacts, we're saying the effects of failing to adequately address greenhouse gas emissions amounts to unlawful discrimination on grounds of age."
Andre added that the case wasn't about "finger pointing" but giving all the governments being brought to court "a chance to act better and faster."
While there are numerous recent and ongoing climate cases, many also involving young plaintiffs, this is the first of its kind to be brought to Strasbourg. The international court, set up in 1959, deals with alleged violations of civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The pressing need for significant and wide-scale action among many large emitters warranted going directly to Strasbourg rather than through domestic courts, which is more common, explained Liston.
According to Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), if the case is successful, the 32 countries will be legally bound to tackle overseas contributions to climate change, including that of multinational companies, as well as ramping up emissions cuts.
The plaintiffs belong to three families and became involved in the case after hearing about GLAN's climate work through a local contact. Many cited seeing climate change hit their doorsteps as encouraging them to act, particularly the deadly Portuguese wildfires of 2017.
"I directly experienced the terror of the fires," said Catarina Mota, one of the four from Leiria, which was among the hardest hit by the blazes, back in 2020. Rising sea levels, the constant threat of forest fires and increasingly abnormal temperatures are now part of her everyday reality.
"These changes make me apprehensive," she said, adding sometimes the heat makes it hard to breathe or sleep.
"What motivated me to be involved in this case was the desire for a world where one can at least survive," said Catarina, who is now 23. "Because if nothing is done by our governments, this will not happen."
Climate action, such as this case, is necessary "in order to have a future and a healthy life without fear," plaintiff Claudia Agostinho, now 24, told DW in 2020. "Our generation and all future generations deserve this."
The Strasbourg case is part of a growing wave of climate litigation around the world.
While there are ongoing cases in many countries — including South Korea, Peru, and Canada — regarding countries' human rights obligations to mitigate climate change, the most recent high-profile example was another youth-led case in the US state of Montana.
In a landmark judgement in August 2023, judges ruled the state's Environmental Policy Act unconstitutional because it does not consider the climate impacts of fossil fuel projects, setting an important precedent for similar cases across the US.
The judgement follows another successful 2021 case initiated by young people against the German government over a climate law they said violated their right to a humane future. Germany's top court ruled that the federal government had to update its 2030 emissions reduction targets.
"I think one case inspires another," said Caroline Schroeder of Germanwatch, an NGO that supported nine young people with a constitutional climate complaint in Germany, back in 2020. She sees the Strasbourg case and growing trend of climate litigation as born of the same mounting frustration driving the Fridays for Future movement — namely, that "politics is not doing enough".
"I wish we wouldn't have to bring the cases," said Roda Verheyen, a climate lawyer who worked on the People's Climate Case filed against EU institutions, which was rejected by the European Court of Justice.
"But it is essentially still the case that the level of protection afforded to our children by legislators is too low. And that's why the courts will keep seeing these cases," Verheyen said in 2020.
Verheyen points out that in emphasising a general duty to protect rather than challenging a specific law, the Strasbourg case is less concrete than others she has worked on. Yet a win there could have wide-reaching implications for member states, she added, and even a loss could potentially "reinforce the strength of the litigation both in national cases and on the EU level".
Its ultimate strength, Liston argued, is in bringing home the time perspective and imminence of the threat. "This case shows that there are people who stand to suffer horrendous effects of climate change within their lifetime," he said.
The youngest plaintiff, now 11, will be 28 in 2040, the year in which the UN panel of scientists expect many of the most severe consequences of climate change to unfold.
Andre said he hoped the case will bring "acknowledgement of the voice of a generation that lives with high anxiety and increasing fear of incoming catastrophes, but also a generation that has all the hope that things will change."
This article was originally published on September 3, 2020, and updated on September 26, 2023, to include the announcement that the ECHR will hear the case on 27 September.