STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court heard from lawyers and activists on Wednesday who want judges to find that states have a human rights obligation to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
A group of senior Swiss women and a former French mayor have brought a pair of complaints to the European Court of Human Rights claiming their respective governments have failed to adequately respond to climate change in violation of their human rights.
A crowd gathered in front of the Strasbourg court in the earlier hours of Wednesday morning, holding banners and flags calling for immediate action to mitigate the impact of climate change.
The first complaint was brought by the group KlimaSeniorinnen, or Senior Women for Climate Protection, which represents more than 2,000 older Swiss women. The group’s average member age is 73. Five of its members joined the case as plaintiffs individually, although one woman has died since the proceedings began in 2020.
They argue the Swiss government’s response to climate change has been insufficient and has had a serious impact on their health.
“Language is inadequate to express the dangers we face,” the group’s lawyer, Jessica Simor of London-based Matrix Chambers, told the rights court's 17-judge panel.
Simor argued the lack of adequate action violates the European Convention of Human Rights, which created the court in 1959 and protects the civil and political rights of Europeans.
“Climate change could negate all rights,” she said.
Damien Carême, former mayor of a small French town and current member of the European Parliament, brought the complaint in the second case. Located near Dunkirk on the French coast, Carême claims his hometown of Grande-Synthe is especially susceptible to rising sea levels and that the government in Paris has failed to act to protect it.
In 2018, both in his official capacity as Grande-Synthe’s mayor and as a resident, the Frenchman sent several requests to the national government asking for help in combating climate change. After getting no response, he filed a complaint with the French Council of State, the country’s supreme court for administrative matters.
The French court eventually sided with the city of Grande-Synthe but denied the complaint from Carême, finding he hadn’t demonstrated climate change impacted him directly. Carême complained to the European Court of Human Rights, asking it to find that France had an obligation to protect his way of life.
The applicants in both cases cited a decision from the Supreme Court of the Netherlands as evidence that courts are moving towards holding governments accountable for climate change. In 2019, the court ruled that the Dutch government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by the end of 2020, as compared to a 1999 benchmark. The case was brought on behalf of 900 Dutch citizens by the climate action group the Urgenda Foundation.
Both the Swiss and the French governments argue they are not solely responsible for climate change and therefore cannot be held to account for its effects.
“Switzerland cannot solve the climate problem alone,” lawyer Alain Chablais, representing the Swiss government, told the Strasbourg court on Wednesday.
Both cases face an uphill battle, according to Birgit Peters, a professor of law at the University of Trier in Germany who attended both hearings. She noted the convention protects the rights of individuals and there is no mechanism for group action in the treaty.
“If one person is a victim [of climate change], then aren’t all of us?” Peters said in an interview.
But supporters of the cause are undeterred.
“This is too important to not fight,” Pia Hollendstein, a board member of the Senior Women for Climate Protection, said in an interview after the hearing. She said it was her generation that created many of the problems of climate change and she feels a responsibility to fix it.
These are not the only complaints before the European Court of Human Rights focused on climate change. When the court announced in February it would hold hearings in both the KlimaSeniorinnen and Carême cases on the same day - a rare occurrence at the court - the judges decided to postpone another case until later in the year.
That case was brought by Duarte Agostinho and five other Portuguese citizens, all between the ages of 10 and 21, against their own government and 32 others, arguing the failure to address climate change will drastically decrease their quality of life in the future.
The court has said it plans to hold a hearing in the Agostinho case after its summer break. Meanwhile, the court has held onto another six cases related to climate change until it has a chance to rule on the first three. It is expected to rule in the Swiss and French cases sometime in 2024.
As the judges were hearing the end of the afternoon session in Strasbourg, the United Nations General Assembly voted to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice in The Hague to clarify what legal obligations states have to combat climate change.
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