Six youngsters against 33 European countries – it’s like David vs. Goliath on a global scale. But the case of the six is a serious one: they want all those countries to take more robust measures against global warming and climate change than they are actually doing. If not, their lives will remain in danger, they claim. Proof of that is found in the vast wildfires that have been torturing Portugal in the last decade. “Climate change is the biggest threat to my future and that of my generation”, says Cláudia Duarte, with her 23 years, the oldest of the applicants. Duarte, a nurse by profession, is living in the Leiria district of Portugal, which was severely hit by the wildfires in 2017. The other group members are aged between 10 and 22.
The initial goal of this case, which was started almost five years ago, was to seek a legally binding decision from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) “requiring European governments to take the urgent action needed to stop the climate crisis”. The applicants argue that European countries must not only adopt much deeper and immediate cuts to emissions released within their borders but also tackle their contributions to emissions released overseas, for example, through their exports of fossil fuels.
The European Court of Human Rights has recently referred the case to the 17-judge Grand Chamber. “Only a tiny fraction of cases – 0.03% – which the Court believes raise the most serious issues are sent to the Grand Chamber”, the applicants say on their crowdfunding website. “Never before have so many States had to defend themselves before any international court or body. So this will be a hearing of unprecedented scale on an issue of unprecedented consequence.” It is expected that the case will be heard this autumn.
The case makes a direct link with the forest fires that have hit Portugal since 2017 which are “a direct result of global heating”. The applicants claim they allege a risk to their health on account of these fires, and assert they have already experienced respiratory problems as a result. Next to the wild fires, the case also stresses that climate disruption is causing powerful storms in winter which are a direct threat to the applicants’ houses.
“We seek to add to the increasing pressure which ordinary people across Europe are putting on their governments to take this action now”, the six are saying. “We are going to the ECtHR because its decisions have the power to bring about significant changes in the policies of European governments.” While the ECtHR can order States to pay compensation, the applicants say they are not seeking any money. This case is solely about “making European governments act to protect their futures”.
The young applicants are supported by a crowdfunding campaign, and have received the support of civil society organisations, UN experts, academics and representatives of the youth-led climate movement in Europe. The latter have sought permission from the Strasbourg-based Court to formally participate in their case as ‘third- party interveners’. This mechanism allows individuals and organisations to independently make submissions to the Court. The Climate Action Network-Europe, a coalition of 179 member organisations from 38 European countries, stated that through their interventions they “aim to strengthen the plaintiffs’ arguments on European countries’ climate inaction”. The case bears some similarities to the one that was brought to the Dutch court by Urgenda – and won.
“Climate change interferes with their right not to be discriminated against”, the applicants’ legal team has stated. “As young people, they stand to experience the worst effects of climate change simply because they will live longer. Because there is no justification for forcing them and other young people to bear this burden, European governments are wrongly discriminating against the youth-applicants through their failures to properly and urgently fight climate change.”
It’s not only about discrimination though. When the European Court of Human Rights communicated the case to the respondent governments, it also raised the question whether the applicants’ right not to be subjected to “inhuman or degrading treatment” has been breached. “Never before has the Court found a violation of this right in a case concerning environmental harm”, the legal team says. “The fact that the court raised the question itself is an indication of how impacted the judges were by the evidence of what the youth-applicants stand to endure because of climate change over the course of their lifetimes unless the radical action needed is taken.”