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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Recent String of Climate Change Court Cases

Written by: Andrew Firmin with edits by Release Peace

Andrew Firmin is the CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society ReportCIVICUS is the world’s biggest alliance of civil society organisations and activists, with over 15,000 members in over 175 countries. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Release Peace. A version of this article was originally published in the CIVICUS Lens.

Andrew Firmin is the CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society ReportCIVICUS is the world’s biggest alliance of civil society organisations and activists, with over 12,000 members in 175 countries. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Release Peace. A version of this article was originally published in the CIVICUS Lens.

A Landmark Court Case

A group of Swiss women won a landmark case against their government at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on 9 April 2024. The court ruled that the Swiss government is violating human rights by not doing enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions. While there have been several judgments in favour of climate action by national courts in recent years, this ruling marks the first time the ECtHR has found that a lack of action on climate change violates human rights. It is also the first time any international human rights court has recognised that people have a right to be protected from climate change.

Swiss Women Take the Lead

More than 2,500 Swiss women, with an average age of 73, backed the case, joining the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz (Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland) group. They successfully argued that their rights to family life and privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights are being breached because they are particularly vulnerable to premature death as a result of extreme heat.

The Court found that the Swiss government had failed to implement a carbon budget and was not meeting its emissions reduction commitments. It is supposed to cut emissions to half of their 1990 levels by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The government cannot appeal against the Court’s verdict. Crucially, the Court rejected the Swiss government’s argument – a familiar one made by states in response to climate litigation – that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions were globally insignificant, so cutting them would not make much of a difference.

Impact of Climate Change

In Europe, as elsewhere, heat records were shattered in 2023, with the continent experiencing its highest-ever number of extreme heat stress days. In Europe’s 2022 heatwaves, over 70,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of high temperatures. Older people are more vulnerable to heatwaves, with women being the worst affected. In Switzerland, older women suffered the highest relative death toll during the 2022 heatwave. Campaigners estimated that 60 percent of those who died would have lived if not for climate change.

The Rise of Climate Lawsuits

The Swiss case exemplifies a global phenomenon: Climate campaigners are increasingly using litigation to hold governments and corporations accountable for their failure to act on preventing or reducing the severity of climate change. Over 1,500 climate litigation cases have been filed since the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015, and more than half have had favourable outcomes for the plaintiffs. There is a growing trend of climate litigants framing their lawsuits around national, regional, and global human rights agreements, which they argue are being breached when governments and corporations do not take adequate action.

Lawsuits brought by a group of young Portuguese people against 32 European states and by a French politician against France were both dismissed on procedural grounds. However, at least six more climate cases await the ECtHR, including one brought against the Norwegian government by Greenpeace Nordic, arguing that plans to expand fossil fuel extraction in Arctic waters violate human rights.

The Interconnection of Court Rulings

In April 2024, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that people have a fundamental right to be free from the harmful impacts of climate change, on the basis that the constitution guarantees the rights to life and equality. This opens up scope for campaigners to hold the Indian government accountable if it fails to protect them from climate change. One of the rulings the Court considered in coming to its conclusions was a 2015 verdict by a court in The Netherlands that ordered the Dutch government to take stronger action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This shows how a judgment in one jurisdiction can help build a case in another.

In November 2023, the Brussels Court of Appeal imposed a binding emissions cut target on Belgian authorities following a human rights lawsuit. That same month, a German court ruled that the government must immediately adopt an action program on emissions targets for construction and transport.

Human rights-based climate cases are currently proceeding in countries including Brazil, Peru, and South Korea, where the Constitutional Court has just begun to hear a lawsuit brought by young people and children. In August 2023, 16 young activists won a case in the US state of Montana, with the court ruling that the state government’s policies in support of fossil fuels violate their right to a healthy environment as enshrined in the state constitution.

Changes in Protests?

Litigation will remain just one of many vital tools used by climate campaigners. The scale and urgency of climate change means a wide array of civil society will keep working on every front possible. This will likely continue to include high-level advocacy towards national governments and in global processes such as COP climate summits, consumer pressure, shareholder activism, campaigns for fossil fuel divestment, street protests, and non-violent direct action.

Recently, the German and Italian authorities have criminalised activists with laws intended to be used against organised crime, police in The Netherlands have detained thousands of protesters, and the UK government has passed new anti-protest laws and used them to jail peaceful climate activists. These growing restrictions could have the effect of sapping the energies and depleting the ranks of the climate movement in countries home to many big fossil fuel corporations and that have historically contributed the highest greenhouse gas emissions.

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