Climate Change Lawsuit: Six Young Activists Challenge 32 Nations

How Six Young Activists Are Taking 32 Nations to Court for a Greener Future!

Climate Change Lawsuit: In a world grappling with the growing impacts of climate change, the voices of the youth are rising to the forefront of the battle for environmental justice. Claudia Duarte Agostinho vividly recalls the profound fear she felt during the devastating heatwave and wildfires that swept through Portugal in 2017, claiming the lives of over 100 people. “The wildfires made me really anxious about what sort of future I would have,” she confides.

Climate change
Claudia (r) says she suffers from eco-anxiety, Martim’s (l) allergies have soared and Mariana (m) was diagnosed with asthma

Claudia, at the age of 24, along with her younger brother Martim, aged 20, and sister Mariana, just 11 years old, are part of a group of six young Portuguese individuals who have taken a bold and unprecedented step. They have initiated a lawsuit against 32 governments, including all European Union member states, the United Kingdom, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, and Turkey. Their primary allegation? These nations have not taken sufficient action to combat climate change and have failed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions adequately, thereby falling short of the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

This landmark case marks the first instance of such legal action being brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. If their plea proves successful, it could carry legally binding implications for the governments in question. The inaugural court hearing for this case is scheduled for Wednesday.

The plaintiffs, ranging in age from 11 to 24, assert that the recurring forest fires in Portugal since 2017 can be directly attributed to global warming. They argue that their fundamental human rights—such as the right to life, privacy, family life, and freedom from discrimination—are being violated due to governments’ reluctance to tackle the climate crisis head-on. They reveal that they have already borne the brunt of significant impacts, especially due to extreme temperatures in Portugal, which have forced them indoors and limited their ability to sleep, concentrate, or engage in physical activity. Some even suffer from eco-anxiety, allergies, and respiratory conditions like asthma. Notably, none of these young activists seeks financial compensation.

“I envision a world free from pollution, where I can lead a healthy life,” declares 11-year-old Mariana. “I’m part of this case because I’m deeply concerned about my future. I fear for the state of our environment.” Claudia mentions that Mariana is still haunted by the sound of helicopters flying overhead, a grim reminder of the harrowing wildfires in 2017 when vast swathes of forest were razed to the ground, and ashes from the inferno rained down on their distant home. Claudia remarks, “It’s truly remarkable that Mariana is engaged in this case, showing such awareness at her age. But it’s also disconcerting—why does she need to worry about these issues? She should be playing with her friends and dancing to TikTok videos.”

Legal representatives advocating for the six young plaintiffs are poised to argue in court that the policies currently adopted by the 32 governments are steering the world towards a catastrophic rise of 3 degrees Celsius in global temperatures by the end of the century. Gearóid Ó Cuinn, the director of the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which supports these young activists, expresses his concern, stating, “This is catastrophic heating. Without swift and resolute action by the governments, the young individuals involved in this case will be subjected to unbearable heat extremes, endangering their health and overall well-being. We know that the governments possess the means to do more to combat this crisis, but they are choosing inaction.”

A 2021 Lancet study substantiates these claims, revealing that climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses to climate change are widespread among children and young people globally, negatively affecting their daily lives. Based on a survey of 10,000 individuals aged 16-25 in 10 countries worldwide, the study indicates that the perceived failure of governments to address the climate crisis is associated with heightened distress.

In their separate and joint responses to the lawsuit, the governments argue that the claimants have not conclusively demonstrated that they have suffered as a direct result of climate change or the Portuguese wildfires. They contend that there is insufficient evidence to prove that climate change poses an immediate threat to human life or health, and they argue that climate policy falls outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. Gearóid Ó Cuinn, in response, emphasizes the challenging nature of this case, remarking, “These six young individuals from Portugal, ordinary citizens deeply concerned about their future, are up against 32 legal teams, with hundreds of lawyers representing governments whose inaction is already harming them. This is truly a David versus Goliath scenario, one that seeks structural change to put us on a better path for our future.”

Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, who has intervened in the case as a third party, underscores the profound significance of this legal battle. She suggests that this case could fundamentally alter how states approach climate issues and human rights. “This serves as a wake-up call to member states, international organizations, and all of us who have the opportunity to demonstrate our commitment beyond mere words on paper. It’s about changing our policies,” she asserts.

Should the ECHR rule in favor of the young activists, it would legally compel all 32 governments to intensify their climate efforts, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out fossil fuels. Additionally, this ruling would provide guidance to domestic courts seeking direction from the ECHR on climate-related cases. A verdict is anticipated within nine to 18 months.

Claudia often ponders whether she should bring children into a world fraught with uncertainty about its environmental future. However, she finds hope in the possibility of winning this case. She states, “Victory in this case would mean there’s finally hope—a sign that people are genuinely listening to us and sharing our concerns. Governments would be compelled to take decisive actions. It would be a tremendous turning point—for our anxiety, for our futures. Many positive changes can follow.”