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Why are climate activists taking 32 nations to court?

Holly Young
September 27, 2023

Six young Portuguese people have brought a climate case to Europe's human rights court that could hold governments accountable for moving too slowly to reduce emissions.

Four youth activists walk in woods in Portugal
A group of youth activists from Portugal wants to hold countries accountable for not acting decisively enough against climate changeImage: Global Legal Action Network

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has started to hear the large-scale climate case of six young people and children from Portugal, who are trying to hold the governments of 32 European countries to account for failing to act on climate change.  

The young people, supported by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), allege the countries — which include Germany, the UK, Russia and Portugal — have not enacted the emission cuts needed to protect their futures.

The case focuses on countries whose policies lawyers argue are too weak to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) Paris Agreement goal. They cite the country ratings of the Climate Action Tracker

The plaintiffs range from age 11 to 24 and come from Lisbon and Leiria in Portugal. The case states climate change poses a rising threat to the lives of the six young people, and to their 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. Oliveira is now 15.  

Andre and Sofia, two of the young people from Portugal filing a climate case in Strasbourg
Andre Oliveira and his sister Sofia, pictured in 2020, are two of the six young people who've filed the climate case in Strasbourg Image: Nuno Gaspar Oliveira

"It's clearly not the case that young people are the only people vulnerable to the effects of climate change," said Gerry Liston, a senior lawyer at GLAN, 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 the grounds of age."  

Oliveira 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."

A first at Strasbourg 

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 GLAN, if successful, the 32 countries would be legally bound to tackle overseas contributions to climate change, including that of multinational companies, as well as ramping up emissions cuts.

Wildfires burning in Portugal in 2017
Many of the young people cited experiencing the deadly Portuguese wildfires of 2017 as motivationImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. De Melo Moreira

Portuguese wildfires sparked action

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 in 2017. 

"I directly experienced the terror of the fires," said Catarina Mota, one of the four who live in 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 feel apprehensive," she said, adding sometimes the heat makes it hard to breathe or sleep. 

Catarina, one of the youth activists in Portugal
Catarina Mota, pictured here in 2020, said governments need to act to make the planet habitable for future generationsImage: Global Legal Action Network

"What motivated me to be involved in this case was the desire for a world where one can at least survive," said Mota, 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."

Wave of climate litigation 

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 the landmark judgement in August, 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 judgment 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.  

Four of the youth activists from Portugal filing a case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg
Liston said the case highlights the fact there are people who will suffer the severe impact of climate change in their lifetimeImage: Global Legal Action Network

Politics, protest and the courts

"I think one case inspires the other," said Caroline Schroeder, from 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 in 2019.

"But it is essentially still the case that the level of protection afforded to our children by the legislators is too low. And that's why the courts will keep seeing these cases," Verheyen said in 2020.  

Verheyen pointed out that in emphasizing 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."

It's 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," said Liston. 

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 September 27.