European rights court hears landmark climate cases against governments for first time

ECHR court room
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Cases against France and Switzerland opened before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on 29 March. They concerned alleged failings to protect the environment. This marks the first time governments are in the court’s dock for alleged climate change inaction.

The case against Switzerland is based on a complaint by an association of elderly people who call themselves the ‘Club of Climate Seniors’. They’re concerned with the consequences of global warming on their living conditions and health, the ECHR said.

The Club accuses Swiss authorities of various climate change failings. These amount to a violation of the government’s obligation to protect life and citizens’ homes and families.

“We’ve been fighting for years,” said 81-year-old Bruna Molinari, adding:

I hope the court will find in our favour so that Switzerland does better than it has done so far.

The average age is 73 in the Swiss club, which is backed by Greenpeace Switzerland. Around 50 of its 2,000 members were expected in Strasbourg for the hearing.

‘Heat kills’

Alain Chablais, representing the Swiss government, told the court that it was “baseless to claim or suggest that Switzerland is doing nothing”. He added that the ECHR:

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has no business becoming the place where national climate protection policy is decided.

However, the plaintiffs’ lawyer Jessica Simor said her clients were “already suffering the effects of climate change” that Switzerland was not doing enough to stop. She added that temperatures were rising “twice as quickly” in the Alpine nation as the global average:

Heat kills… increasing the risks of kidney problems, asthma attacks, cardiovascular difficulties… and causes particularly acute symptoms in elderly people, more especially elderly women.

And France, too

Damien Careme brought the case against France. Careme is a former mayor of Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk in northern France. He also argues that the central government has failed to meet its obligation to protect life by taking insufficient steps to prevent climate change.

When he was mayor, Careme brought his case to the French judiciary on behalf of his town but also on his own behalf. He said that climate change was raising the risk of his home being flooded.

France’s highest administrative court ruled in favour of the town against the central government in 2021. However, it threw out the individual case brought by Careme, which he then took to the ECHR.

Corinne Lepage, a former French ecology minister, is one of Careme’s lawyers in the case. She told Agence France-Presse:

The stakes are extremely high… If the European court recognises that climate failings violate the rights of individuals to life and a normal family life, then that becomes precedent in all of the council’s member states and potentially in the whole world.

The European Court of Human Rights acknowledged in a statement that the European Convention on Human Rights does not actually include a right to a healthy environment. It is this Convention on which it must base its judgements. This includes the right to life:

Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law.

However, its decision to take the cases was based on the fact that the exercise of the convention’s existing rights could be undermined by harm to the environment or exposure to environmental risks.

A third case

A third pending case, without a date for a hearing so far, was brought by young Portuguese applicants. They’re claiming that climate inaction by dozens of states had contributed to heatwaves in Portugal. Crucially, they also claim that this heat is affecting their other rights.

Although the cases are a first for the ECHR, people have previously taken their governments to court in their national jurisdictions. For example, in 2019 the Dutch Supreme Court ordered the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This followed a complaint by an environmental organisation, Urgenda. As the Guardian reported:

After multiple appeals, in December 2019 the Dutch supreme court issued an extraordinary ruling upholding lower courts’ decisions that obliged the government to cut emissions by 25% below 1990 levels by the end of 2020. It was the first time a court anywhere in the world had ordered a government to mitigate global heating by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Then, two years later, a court in Paris found the French government guilty of climate inaction. It ordered them to pay for the resulting damages after four NGOs filed a case.

Wednesday’s hearings are only the start of proceedings. The process is likely to take several months before the court hands down its verdicts.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/ CherryX, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, resized to 770*403

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