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Landmark Ruling By European Court Could Create Human Right to Be Protected From Climate Change

The European Court of Human Rights Located in France.
Source: CherryX/Wikimedia

The European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France began a session Tuesday examining three different cases involving climate change complaints. Depending on the way the cases were ruled, the decision could have effectively forced any of the countries involved to reduce their climate emissions.

While two of the cases were rejected, one case involving senior women from Switzerland sets a legally binding precedent that cannot be appealed. This ruling could require governments in Europe to take active steps in their obligation to protect their citizens from the ongoing effects of climate change in future lawsuits. 

This is the first time that a high international court has made such a ruling on climate change, creating a new standard by which the 47  other member states of the Council of Europe will be judged.

“This is a turning point,” said Corina Heri, an expert in climate change litigation at the University of Zurich. Heri asserts that this ruling creates an obligation for countries to protect people from the adverse effects of climate change. She also predicts that this ruling would open the door for other plaintiffs to bring forth legal challenges in the 27 European Union nations as well as other countries like Britain and Turkey.

This human rights court, the highest in Europe, sided in a lawsuit with Swiss women against their government who were attempting to hold the government accountable for failing to reduce emissions to meet their climate change targets.

A group of women called Senior Women for Climate Protection, who have an average age of 74, argued that they were uniquely struggling against increasingly common waves of extreme heat, which climate experts say is contributing to a human health crisis across the Earth. Part of the women’s argument is that their age and gender made them more vulnerable than others to the risk of dying during such heatwaves.

The court ruling argues that Switzerland “had failed to comply with its duties” and that this dereliction of duty was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides “effective protection by the state authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, well-being and quality of life.”

The Court President Siofra O’Leary said in her ruling that the Swiss Government is culpable for not following through on its own targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“It is clear that future generations are likely to bear an increasingly severe burden of the consequences of present failures and omissions to combat climate change,” O’Leary said.

Climate activists are celebrating the decision, although hoped for more of the cases considered by the court today to be ruled in their favor.

“The first ruling by an international human rights court on the inadequacy of states’ climate action leaves no doubt,” said Joie Chowdhury, senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law, “the climate crisis is a human rights crisis.”

The European Court of Human Rights rejected two similar, climate-related cases. One was brought forward by young Portuguese climate activists who were trying to get their government to do more to address climate change. The other was from a French mayor who filed a lawsuit to try to force governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.


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