Credit: KlimaSeniorinnen

Swiss Climate Group Wins Victory At European Court Of Human Rights

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Three months ago, we wrote a story about a group of older women who are climate advocates in Switzerland. They call themselves KlimaSeniorinnen — the youngest member is 64 years old — and they sued the government of Switzerland in the European Court of Human Rights, claiming the Swiss government has denied them a clean and safe environment.

In their legal filing with the court, the women claimed that warming global temperatures are having an outsized effect on them and other women their age. The latest scientific research indicates that older women in Switzerland died at the highest rates from heat in the summer of 2022. The group says that 60% of the deaths would have been avoided in a world not affected by the higher temperatures brought on by the climate crisis. One member, Pia Hollenstein, told The Guardian:

Our generation has done so much to destroy the climate. We have a responsibility. It serves everyone if we can successfully make Switzerland do more.

Legal scholars say that suits based on the notion that global heating is harming all people won’t succeed, but a suit filed by a small group of people who can show they have been adversely affected more than others in the general population might be successful — emphasis on “might.” Their case, which could send shockwaves through courts across the continent, rests on two simple facts:

  • Heatwaves are getting hotter as people burn fossil fuels.
  • Women, particularly older ones, are more likely to die when temperatures soar.

Heat is far more dangerous than people realize. Doctors say during periods of hot weather, some victims drop dead when working or living outdoors. Many more die in retirement homes and hospitals because their bodies have been weakened from the weather and are unable to fight off diseases that harm the hearts, lungs, and kidneys. Heat killed an extra 70,000 people across Europe last year, according to the latest analysis of mortality and temperature data, and the death toll this year, the hottest on record, may prove higher still.

“Based on current evidence from epidemiological studies, older women are particularly vulnerable to heat,” Ana Vicedo-Cabrera, who leads the climate and health team at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Berne, told the court. The reasons why are unclear, she said, but “changes in the cardiovascular system due to menopause or the fact that older women tend to be more active than men have been proposed as potential reasons.”

Charlotte Blattner, a researcher at the University of Berne who specializes in climate law, said experts were hopeful that the process would enshrine milestones that nudged governments into more stringent climate policy through human rights guarantees. Still, she said, “the chances that the KlimaSeniorinnen will win this case on all grounds is very unlikely.”

The Climate Verdict

Charlotte Blattner had every reason to be guarded in her prediction about the outcome of the case, but the ECHR is not dominated by judges who were anointed to the bench for their unswerving loyalty to the fossil fuel industry, as is the case in the US. This week, the ECHR ruled in favor of the KlimaSeniorinnen, finding that Switzerland had violated the rights of the women. But it dismissed two similar claims filed by the mayor of a city in France and a group of young Portuguese people who brought a claim against 32 European countries.

“It feels like a mixed result because two of the cases were inadmissible,” said Corina Heri, a law researcher at the University of Zürich. “But actually it’s a huge success.” The court, which calls itself “the conscience of Europe,” found that Switzerland had failed to comply with its duties to stop climate change. It also set out a path for organisations to bring further cases on behalf of applicants. The Swiss verdict opens up all 46 members of the Council of Europe to similar cases in national courts that they are now likely to lose.

Joie Chowdhury, an attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, told The Guardian the judgment left no doubt that the climate crisis was a human rights crisis. “We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond,” she said.

The facts of the three cases varied widely, but they all hinged on the question of whether government inaction on climate change violated fundamental human rights. Some of the governments argued that the cases should not be admitted and that climate policy should be the subject of national governments rather than international courts.

Anton Foley, who along with Greta Thunberg was representing Aurora, a youth group that filed a climate lawsuit against Sweden, said it was “unjust” that responsibility for stopping the climate crisis fell on young people and praised the Swiss women for stepping up. “We don’t want to be the hope for the older generation. We want them to do this, because we don’t want to fight this fight.” Thunberg thanked Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, co-president of the KlimaSeniorinnen, for what she had done as they met outside the courtroom.

KlimaSeniorinnen, which has 2,400 members, all of them older Swiss women, told the court that several of their rights were being violated. The court ruled that Swiss authorities had not acted in time to come up with a good enough strategy to cut emissions. It also found the applicants had not had appropriate access to justice in Switzerland.

The Portuguese children and young people — who will see greater climate damage than previous generations — argued that climate disasters such as wildfires and smoke threatened their right to life and discriminated against them based on their age. The court ruled that they could not bring cases against countries other than Portugal and added that they had not pursued legal avenues available to them in Portugal.

The French case was brought by Damien Carême, the former mayor of  Grand-Synthe, a coastal town that is vulnerable to flooding. He argued that France’s failure to do enough to stop climate change violated his rights to life and privacy and family life. However, the court dismissed his complaint because he no longer lives there.

The ECHR rejects about 90% of all applications it receives as inadmissible, but it fasttracked the three climate cases to its top bench because of their urgency. These rulings will influence three other international courts that are examining the role of government climate policy on human rights.

The court said that keeping global heating to 1.5º C (we may have already blown past that stop sign) was a key part of protecting human rights, rather than the higher 2º C limit that courts had used for rulings on cases in Germany and the Netherlands. Gerry Liston, a lawyer for the Portuguese children, said the recognition that Switzerland’s policies were not science-based was “by far” the most significant aspect of the ruling. “No European government’s climate policies are aligned with anything near 1.5º C, so it will be clear to those working on climate litigation in those countries that there is now a clear basis to bring a case in their national courts.”

The Takeaway

Somebody, perhaps Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win!” This week, a group of older women in Switzerland won a landmark climate decision from the European Court of Human Rights. It is a little known fact that judges in one court are keenly aware of what judges in other courts are doing and saying. Nobody wants to be the outlier on important issues that affect millions of people.

The ECHR decision will spark a wave of similar litigation. What’s that sound? That, dear friends, is the sound of fossil fuel dinosaurs in their death throes. And what a lovely sound it is!

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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