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Is climate change action a human right? A European court will rule for the first time

People demonstrate outside the European Court of Human Rights Tuesday, April 9, 2024 in Strasbourg, eastern France.
Jean-Francois Badias
People demonstrate outside the European Court of Human Rights Tuesday, April 9, 2024 in Strasbourg, eastern France.

STRASBOURG, France — Europe's highest human rights court began its session Tuesday on a group of landmark climate change cases aimed at forcing countries to meet international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The European Court of Human Rights will hand down decisions in a trio of cases brought by a French mayor, six Portuguese youngsters and more than 2,000 members of Senior Women for Climate Protection, who say their governments are not doing enough to combat climate change.

Lawyers for all three are hoping the Strasbourg court will find that national governments have a legal duty to make sure global warming is held to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Although activists have had successes with lawsuits in domestic proceedings, this will be the first time an international court has ruled on climate change.

A decision against any of the countries involved could force them to reduce net emissions to zero by 2030. The EU, which doesn't include Switzerland, currently has a target to be climate-neutral by 2050. Many governments have said that meeting a 2030 goal would be economically unattainable.

Ahead of the ruling, a large crowd gathered in front of the court building to cheer and wave flags, including climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was coming off of multiple arrests during a demonstration in The Hague over the weekend.

"We're nervous. Nervous and excited," said Cláudia Agostinho, a 24-year-old who is one of the six Portuguese who brought the case to the Strasbourg court.

The decisions have "the potential to be a watershed moment in the global fight for a livable future. A victory for any of the three cases would be one of the most significant developments on climate change since the signing of the Paris Agreement" said Gerry Liston, a lawyer with the Global Legal Action Network, which is supporting the Portuguese students.

The groups are confident that the 17 judges will rule in their favor, but a decision in the other direction could undermine a previous ruling in the Netherlands. In 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court ordered the government to cut emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 from benchmark 1990 levels.

The Urgenda decision, referring to the climate group that brought the case, relied on the European Convention of Human Rights. It could be overturned if Tuesday's decision concludes there is no legal obligation for countries to combat climate change.

"A court ruling is binding on all countries," said Dennis van Berkel, who represented Urgenda in the Netherlands.

Such considerations were not predominantly on the mind of 16-year-old André dos Santos Oliveira of Portugal.

"The extreme heat waves, the rainfalls, followed by heat waves, it is just choking us with greenhouse effects. And what worries me is the frequency in which they started happening more and more. That's what really scared me. And, I thought to myself, well, what can I do?" she said.

Together with five more young people, Santos Oliveira took Portugal and 32 other nations to court, arguing the failure to stop emissions violated their fundamental rights.

At the other end of the age spectrum, a group of Swiss retirees are also demanding their government do more. Senior Women for Climate Protection, whose average age is 74, say older women's rights are especially infringed on because they are most affected by the extreme heat that will become more frequent due to global warming.

Earth shattered global annual heat records in 2023, flirted with the world's agreed-upon warming threshold, and showed more signs of a feverish planet, Copernicus, a European climate agency, said in January.

In all three cases, lawyers argued that the political and civil protections guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights are meaningless if the planet is uninhabitable.

The countries facing the legal challenges hope the cases will be dismissed. They say the blame for climate change cannot rest with any individual country.

Switzerland is not alone in being affected by global warming, said Alain Chablais, representative of the country at last year's hearings. "This problem cannot be solved by Switzerland alone."

Acknowledging the urgency of the climate crisis, the court fast-tracked all three cases, including a rare move allowing the Portuguese case to bypass domestic legal proceedings.

Judgments from the European Court of Human Rights aren't legally binding against all 46 of its member states, but they set a legal precedent against which future lawsuits would be judged.

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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]