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European Court Rules Climate Protection a Human Right in Switzerland

A group of more than 2,000 Swiss women have sued and won against the Swiss government for not taking enough precautions when it comes to climate change. The women, all 64 years of age or older, made a claim that the lack of action by their government violated their human rights as they are more susceptible to the negative health impacts climate change can cause. The case, Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland, was filed in 2020 in the European Court of Human Rights. A 250-page judgment on the case was released last week, April 9th, 2024, in favor of the group of senior women. This historic decision is the first time such a high-profile court has made a decision on what a government’s obligation is in relation to climate change.

One of the primary attestations the group of women — many of whom are part of a group called Senior Women for Climate Protection (KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz) — brought before the court have to do with the major heat waves that ravaged Europe during the summer of 2022. The European State of Climate Report found 2022 to be Europe’s warmest summer on record, resulting in the deaths of more than 15,000 people across the continent specifically from heat. The claim was made that the government's lack of action when it came to climate change has left vulnerable populations, such as senior women, to be more at risk, particularly from heat stress. As such, this lack of action violates the human rights of the senior women.

To understand the claims made in this case, one must go back to 1950. In the wake of World War II, the European Convention on Human Rights was convened by a collective of countries who had recently formed what was dubbed the Council of Europe in 1949. This Convention drafted a document inscribing a catalog of human rights and freedoms warranted to all citizens of Europe. The European Court of Human Rights was also established at this convention to oversee any potential disputes or violations of these rights. 

Fast forward to 2015: many of the world’s countries met in Paris, France, for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) to adopt the Paris Agreement, an international treaty outlining the various goals and actions countries will be taking in order to combat climate change. Each country set its own goals, with the plan to convene again for COP26 in 2021. During this time, Switzerland had been criticized for its unambiguous climate goals. The country did, however, pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 20 percent of 1990 levels by 2020. However, they only ended up cutting emissions by 11 percent. Overall, Switzerland’s climate policies and actions have been rated “insufficient” by the organization Climate Action Tracker. 

Looking at the above lackluster climate action and resulting severe weather, the court found Switzerland to be in violation of the women’s right to life as defined by the European Convention of Human Rights and the Swiss Constitution. The court ruling did not specify in what exact steps the Swiss government to realign its climate plan. It did relay certain standards to be adhered to, particularly that steps taken must be based on the best scientific evidence available and the Swiss government must be transparent about the effectiveness of any action taken.

This decision also challenges the “drop in the ocean” strategy used by many countries and businesses. Due to the global-wide causes of climate change, one company, for example, can point to another and claim that the other company is also contributing to climate change, or contributing more so, thereby deflecting any blame or responsibility for their own contribution. The Swiss ruling sets a precedent that a country (or business) can be held liable for its drop in the ocean. As climate and energy director at the Center for International Environmental Law, Nikki Reisch said, “All of these countries are subject to the same obligation. Where there’s a gap between their climate measures and what science shows is necessary to protect human rights, they will have to act to close that gap or face legal consequences.” 

This recent ruling is one of many climate-related cases being brought to court. It was one of three climate cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights that day, with the other two dismissed as inadmissible. In addition, there are seven other cases pending, which have been waiting for the results of the April 9th decisions before proceeding. One of these cases involves a group of climate activists and environmental organizations taking on the Norwegian government for allowing new oil drilling to be done in the Arctic region.

Aside from Europe, The United States has been starting to see its share of climate-related court cases. Communities in Colorado are currently in an ongoing litigation against Exxon Mobil and Suncor Energy for the considerable environmental damage resulting from these company’s operations, particularly in the Colorado area. Another climate accountability lawsuit was brought against a number of gas and oil companies, including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute, by Pennsylvania’s Bucks County. These are just a couple of many ongoing cases across the country. 

This win by the Senior Women for Climate Protection and the wave of ongoing climate litigation shows the steps many will take to fight for their right to life in relation to the negative effects of climate change. The implications on the court’s role in holding to account those responsible for climate change are vast. “It cannot be that because climate change affects everyone, no one can seek remedy, or because so many countries are responsible for climate change, no one can be held accountable,” said Joie Chowdhury, a lawyer at the Center for International Environmental Law. The times may be a-changin’ in how countries take responsibility for their role in climate change.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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