Young Portuguese citizens  climate
Young Portuguese citizens hold placards as they arrive at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for a hearing in a climate change case involving themselves against 33 countries, in Strasbourg, eastern France, on September 27, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Srasbourg: The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Wednesday began hearing a case brought by six Portuguese youths against 32 nations for not doing enough to stop global warming, the latest bid to secure climate justice through the courts.

The group, aged 11 to 24, say they are suffering from anxiety over their health and “having to live with a climate that is getting hotter and hotter” with more natural disasters.

The move to file a complaint with the Strasbourg-based court was sparked by the massive wildfires that struck Portugal in 2017, killing more than 100 people and charring swathes of the country.

Some plaintiffs claim allergies and breathing problems both during the fires and after, conditions at risk of persisting if the planet keeps warming.

“European governments are not managing to protect us,” said Andre Oliveira, 15, one of the six involved.

“We’re on the front lines of climate change in Europe: even in February it’s sometimes 30 degrees Celsius. The heatwaves are getting more and more serious,” he added.

Andre and his fellow plaintiffs say the 27 European Union member states along with Russia, Turkey, Switzerland, Norway and Britain have all failed to sufficiently limit greenhouse gas emissions, affecting their life and health.

In concrete legal terms, they complain of infringements of their rights to life and respect for private life - articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

‘Priority’ case

“There have been cases taken by young people about climate change in other courts before, but this is the first to be heard by the ECHR related to the rights of young people,” said Gerry Liston, a lawyer with the British-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which is representing them.

If they win, nations would have to “rapidly accelerate their climate mitigation efforts”, Liston added.

“In legal terms, it would be a game changer.”

Activists are increasingly turning to courts to force greater efforts by governments to tackle climate change amid warnings the world is falling short of the 2015 Paris Agreement goals for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above mid-19th century levels.

climate change smoke refinery
The industrial backdrop of a BP refinery and a Uniper coal-fired power plant are seen in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, March 6, 2023. Image Credit: AP

In August, a court in the US state of Montana ruled in favour of a group of youths who accused it of violating their rights to a clean environment.

“The big advancement in the past couple of years was clarifying that this connection between human rights and climate change is very obvious, very clear,” said Maria-Antonia Tigre, co-author of a report on the phenomenon published by the University of Columbia’s Sabin Center.

“We can use human rights law... to force further action from states and from corporations,” she added.

The Strasbourg-based ECHR is taking the case seriously, labelling it a “matter of priority” and passing it to the body’s top judges in its Grand Chamber.

An ECHR source told AFP that “this is a unique case”, especially given the number of states accused at once and the importance of the climate.

Until now, the court’s environmental decisions have not covered global warming, dealing with issues like natural disasters and industrial pollution.

But judges must first rule on the admissibility of the case, since the Portuguese youths filed directly to the ECHR without first seeking recourse in domestic courts.

They argue that trying to file separate cases in all 32 countries would be an “excessive and disproportionate burden” on an issue requiring urgent attention.

Two other climate cases involving France and Switzerland were examined by the ECHR in March, though no rulings have yet been issued.

‘Lives at risk’

The plaintiffs have also drawn the attention of the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic.

She told the court in 2021 that “a state’s failure to take concrete measures to prevent the adverse effects of climate change raises an issue under several rights guaranteed by the Convention”.

“If we win our case, governments that don’t hold to their promises will be sanctioned - because people’s lives are at risk,” Andre Oliveira said.

Because he has asthma, the 15-year-old is not allowed to do sport when it gets hot. “It is getting worse and worse and we are more and more afraid.”

Claudia Agostinho, the oldest of the plaintiffs, said that coming from a rural area, where attachment to family is important, she had been brought up to believe that you have a responsibility to the children you wish to bring into the world.

“We have to have measures to guarantee the right to a healthy life, which is the most basic of all human rights - and that is all we are asking of governments. It’s the basics,” she said.