On a case-by-case basis, the activist insists on being climatically equal
“We may be less famous than the youth climate movement, but we are many: we are the older women against climate change.” In a cool-looking campaign video, a group of older Swiss women say the words with confidence. This ‘KlimaSeniors’as they are called published on Wednesday before the “Grand Chamber” of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Activists are suing the Swiss government for human rights violations.
Their government, campaigners say, is failing to tackle CO22that it is responsible for the suffering of elderly women, relatively affected by extreme temperatures. This reasoning is not (yet) self-evident: this is the first time that the ECHR has heard a climate case, which in itself means a victory for climate activists.
If the KlimaSeniorinnen were successful, it would mean a potential legal earthquake for the 47 countries that are parties to the European Convention on Human Rights. A large number of lawsuits brought by environmental clubs against governments are likely to follow, according to professor of environmental law at the University of Groningen Gerrit van der Veen. According to him, a victory is certainly not to be excluded: “In view of recent case law, I give them a chance. The fact that the European Court of Human Rights works by examining the case with seventeen judges, who together form the Grand Chamber, “indicates in any case the weight which is attached to this case before the Court”.
According to Professor Lodewijk Smeehuijzen, professor of private law at the VU University of Amsterdam, the KlimaSeniorinnen’s appeal to human rights is an attractive choice: “Climate change can have dramatic implications for human rights. the man. Environmental groups around the world have increasingly realized that, concluded the London School of Economics. Between 1986 and 2014, just over eight hundred climate cases were conducted. Another twelve hundred have been added until 2022.
Legal arguments in court cases can often be clearly transferred from one climate group to another
But the victories of environmental organizations in court are anything but obvious. Climate cases repeatedly come up against the same legal problem, notes Smeehuijzen. “Governments and businesses are powerless to avoid the disastrous consequences of climate change.” Even though the judge ruled in favor of the activists, the negative consequences of climate change still exist after the judgment. “Normally, a judge shows you the door immediately if he knows that his judgment will not have a direct effect on your situation,” says Smeehuijzen. The lion’s share of climate activists are therefore legally behind the net.
This includes the KlimaSeniorinnen, who in 2016 sued the Swiss government for allegedly breaching the Paris climate treaty because it would not limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The judge dismissed the charge. After all, international agreements have been made to limit emissions, the court said, and even if the 1.5-degree limit is not reached, it won’t happen for decades. By then the KlimaSeniorinnen will be long dead, so their human rights cannot be violated. The seniors have now been pleading for six years, culminating in the case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
A legal hailstorm
Activists often use such a “hailstorm” to see what works. For example, the environmental group Mobilization for the Environment is threatening legal action if a number of Dutch provinces do not revoke binding agricultural permits. Sometimes it’s just right, like in the Netherlands in recent years. For example, there was the highly publicized Urgenda case of 2015, in which the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the state of CO2emissions, compared to 1990, were to fall by 25% by 2020. Shortly after, climate activists struck again: in 2021, the court in The Hague ruled that Shell must reduce its emissions by 45% in 2030. Both statements came unexpectedly, says Professor Smeehuijzen. But that’s no coincidence either.
Read also: After years of lobbying, Vanuatu, threatened by climate change, paves the way for justice
Such climate lawsuits, like those of the KlimaSeniorinnen, have piled up in recent years, Smeehuijzen notes. “The climate activists who start this kind of business form a vast network. In the aftermath of a climate verdict, legal arguments and court decisions circulate by email within these groups. Members of this network are happy to help each other succeed. Because a lawsuit requires very precise reasoning, legal arguments can usually be clearly communicated from one climate group to another. This legal cross-pollination is easier when judicial reasoning is based on treaties such as the Human Rights Convention, according to Van der Veen.
But it’s not just climate advocates who follow developments in the Netherlands (and beyond). Gradually, judges also begin to have different perspectives. Smeehuijzen: “The topic of climate is concrete and life-threatening, but tackling it is beyond the direct sphere of influence of individual companies and governments. If judges still want to rule in favor of prosecuting climate activists, they must reform the traditional core concepts of the law. Not all judges and academics are receptive to this, says Smeehuijzen. Slowly, “cracks” are appearing in some traditional judicial beliefs that have held back climate activists.
But talking about a change in the justice system is too premature, he warns. Finally, the case against Shell has yet to be heard on appeal, and the KlimaSeniorinnen have not yet won their case before the ECHR either. The Court can still decide to dismiss the class action because of the lack of legal basis.
Serious climate organization
However, a legal right is not the only gain that can be made for environmental organizations. After six years of litigation, the KlimaSeniorinnen have grown from a striking club of one hundred and fifty concerned grandmothers to a serious environmental organization that now has more than two thousand members. Their profits and losses, as well as those of the climate clubs Urgenda and Milieudefensie, also reverberate in other parts of the world. According to the London School of Economics, 88 climate cases have so far been brought against governments in the “Global South”.
It would be the first time that the International Court of Justice, like the European Court of Human Rights in the KlimaSeniorinnen case, has ruled on climate change
For example, a Peruvian mountain guide sued German energy company RWE over a decaying glacier threatening his mountain village. The German judges visited the village and promised that RWE would be held responsible if it could be proven that the glacier is collapsing due to climate change and the village is threatened as a result. Experts say the case has a good chance of succeeding.
The island nation of Vanuatu, which is sinking into the Pacific Ocean due to rising sea levels, succeeded on Wednesday in getting the United Nations to ask the International Court of Justice to investigate states’ responsibilities members to reduce their own CO2 reduce.
It would be the first time that the International Court of Justice, like the European Court of Human Rights in the KlimaSeniorinnen case, would rule on climate change. It probably won’t be the last time.
With the collaboration of Paul Luttikhuis
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on March 30, 2023
“Infuriatingly humble social media ninja. Devoted travel junkie. Student. Avid internet lover.”