In Landmark Climate Ruling, European Court Faults Switzerland

By Equipo
5 Min Read

Europe’s top human rights court said on Tuesday that the Swiss government had violated its citizens’ human rights by not doing enough to stop climate change, a landmark ruling that experts said could bolster activists hoping to use human rights law to hold governments to account.

The court, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, “has actually said that by not meeting its targets on climate, Switzerland has violated the rights of the European human rights convention,” said Annalisa Savaresi, a professor of environmental law at University of Stirling in Scotland. She said that national courts would be closely watching the ruling. “This is huge.”

With many countries failing to meet their climate targets, the decision could influence similar cases before national courts, Dr. Savaresi said, and would put a “spring in the steps” of such applicants.

On Tuesday the court ruled on three cases filed by members of the public who argued that their governments, by not doing enough to mitigate against climate change, were violating their citizens’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. It rejected as inadmissible two of the cases, which were brought by the former mayor of a coastal town in France and a group of young people in Portugal.

The court ordered Switzerland to pay 80,000 euros, about $87,000, to the group that brought the case to cover its costs and expenses.

The Swiss government had argued that human rights law does not apply to climate change, and that addressing it should be a political process. But Switzerland’s federal office of justice, which represents the country at the European court, said in a statement that the Swiss authorities would analyze the judgment and examine “the measures which Switzerland has to take for the future.”

The ruling is the latest decision in a broader wave of climate-related lawsuits that aim to push governments to act against global warming, including in the United States, where a judge ruled last year that Montana’s failure to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional. American states themselves have also sued corporations, including oil and gas companies over claims that they played down the risk of fossil fuels.

In the case decided on Tuesday, a group of Swiss women age 64 and up — known as the KlimaSeniorinnen, or Senior Women for Climate Protection — argued that the Swiss government’s failure to reduce greenhouse emissions enough to stop global warming had violated their rights.

With heat waves sweeping Switzerland in recent summers and research showing that older women are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, the litigants said that the government had not sufficiently acted to protect their final decades.

A second case that the court considered focused on a complaint by Damien Carême, a former mayor of Grande-Synthe, a town on the coast of the English Channel. The town faces an increased flooding risk in the coming decades because of climate change, and Mr. Carême argued that France had endangered it by taking insufficient steps to prevent global warming.

Mr. Carême, who was the town’s mayor from 2001 to 2019 and is now a member of the European Parliament for France’s Green party, argued that this failure violates the right to life, which is enshrined in European law.

The court ruled that his case was inadmissible, however, because Mr. Carême no longer lives in Grande-Synthe, or in France, and therefore no longer has any legally relevant link to the town.

The court also ruled inadmissible a lawsuit brought by six Portuguese young people about 12 to 25 who argued that the current and future effects of climate change — including heat waves, wildfires and the smoke from those blazes — are affecting their lives, well-being and mental health.

They blamed 33 Paris Climate Agreement signatory countries in the region, including Portugal, for failing to comply with their commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions.

The court ruled that the applicants had not exhausted all of the legal options available to them in Portugal and that bringing a complaint against the other 32 countries would entail an “unlimited expansion” of the states’ jurisdiction. To do so would make those countries responsible for people “practically anywhere in the world,” the court said in a news release.

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