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Young Swedes take their country to court over climate inaction

In a lawsuit based on the fundamental rights to life and privacy guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, the nonprofit group Aurora is suing the Swedish state for not having a proper climate action plan.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (CN) — The Swedish capital is the birthplace of the international movement Fridays for Future, which has galvanized thousands of youngsters to skip school and march in the streets in protest against a lack of political action to stop global warming and recognize the climate crisis.

Now, the youth nonprofit organization Aurora, whose members include teen climate activist Greta Thunberg, is suing the Swedish state for “its inadequate and counterproductive climate policy.” 

On Friday, Aurora presented a comprehensive petition for summons in the Stockholm District Court against Sweden for violations of the European Convention on Human Rights "and fundamental freedom rights." They had help from an organization of environmental lawyers, who offer free legal advice to climate rights groups, as well as international lawyers, doctors and climate scientists.

Ida Edling, 23, is a spokesperson for Aurora and has worked on the legal foundation for the lawsuit. She told Courthouse News she joined the effort because she is horrified the world is in a life-threatening climate crisis. Edling said she wanted to be part of a movement forcing governments to take responsibility.

“People in power don’t seem to realize that large-scale and immediate action is required to prevent it from worsening further. The global movement of climate litigation has shown that lack of sufficient climate action is irresponsible and unimaginably dangerous and illegal,” she said in an email interview.

Europe has seen several similar types of climate lawsuits over the past years, where groups of individuals file joint lawsuits based on current and future violations of their right to live a decent life due to increasing greenhouse gas effects, according to Annemette Fallentin Nyborg, a doctoral student studying human rights and climate change at Copenhagen University.

“These court cases are systemic and target fundamental rights instead of specific events or interventions such as, for example, government oil extractions or forest clearings," she said in an interview. "We see young Swedes base their lawsuit on how climate change effects such as heat waves and extreme rainfalls lead to a lower quality of life for them – now and in the future."

Nyborg said climate lawsuits are tricky because the applicants have to go to court and prove an interference that has only partially materialized and one in which the full scope of the consequences is still unknown.

“They ask the Swedish court to reject the current climate action plan and ambitions to reach the 1.5-degree [Celsius] target in the Paris Agreement. In other words - to deem the current political efforts illegal and in breach with the applicants’ fundamental human rights," she said.

One of Aurora’s key demands is to give climate scientists a central chair in the political decision room. They argue the Swedish government does not use the best and most current available science to evaluate whether the country takes its fair share of measures to minimize emissions of greenhouse gases on a global scale.

“Governments are obliged to protect people and ecosystems from the dangers of the climate crisis," Edling wrote. "These cases are especially important in industrialized countries, such as [those in] Europe. States with high emissions and large resources have a special responsibility to take immediate measures to mitigate the climate crisis.”

Aurora’s lawsuit is based on Articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life, respectively.

A similar case was won in 2019 by 900 citizens of the Netherlands and the environmental organization Urgenda Foundation. They sued the Dutch government for not having a sufficient reduction target for the national emissions of greenhouse gases.

In Switzerland, however, a group of middle-aged women lost in the country's high court when they argued that the rising temperatures cause hot flashes and increased health risks for their demographic. Their case is now pending at a regional human rights court.

Several other significant climate cases are pending in the national courts in European states and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Swedish lawsuit is therefore not new on the European level and will mostly serve to set national precedent, according to Nyborg.

“But if they win, it can inspire climate activists in other states to pursue similar trials,” she said.

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