November 30, 2020; Common Dreams and The Guardian

Leadership often comes from unexpected places. Once again, as with Greta Thunberg and so many other youth activists, it is the young who lead and prod their elders to take action. NPQ has noted this theme before. Now, the European Court of Human Rights has taken up what the plaintiffs’ lawyer describes as possibly the court’s most important case ever. The six plaintiffs are four children and two young adults.

The court has ordered more than 30 European governments to respond to a lawsuit seeking to force political leaders to take direct action against an observable climate emergency. The plaintiffs say their governments are moving too slowly in reducing the greenhouse gases that are destabilizing the climate. The suit’s defendants are the 27 nations of the European Union, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Ukraine, who now must respond by February 23rd. If these nations do not convince the Strasbourg-based judges, they will be legally mandated, along with the multinational companies headquartered in their jurisdictions, to reduce their contributions to carbon emissions via trade, deforestation, and extractive industries.

“It is no exaggeration to say that this could be the most important case ever tried by the European court of human rights,” said Marc Willers, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs. His clients, all from Portugal, put forth their case for climate action based on the need to safeguard their future physical and mental wellbeing, prevent discrimination against the young, and protect their rights to exercise outdoors and live without anxiety.

In a statement for himself and the other plaintiffs, twelve-year-old André Oliveira says, “It gives me lots of hope to know that the judges in the European Court of Human Rights recognize the urgency of our case. But what I’d like the most would be for European governments to immediately do what the scientists say is necessary to protect our future. Until they do this, we will keep on fighting with more determination than ever.”

The significance of this case should not be underestimated. It joins more than 1,300 climate-related lawsuits filed worldwide since 1990. Not all succeed, and those that have are often limited. But in this suit, the Strasbourg judges have the potential to set standards across multiple international boundaries. The court has also asked the defendant nations to explain whether their failure to tackle global heating violates Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right not to be subjected to “inhumane and degrading treatment.”

The judges in Strasbourg clearly felt a sense of urgency with this case and moved to fast-track it. This was highly unusual. But when children ask nations to safeguard their futures and ensure their physical and mental wellbeing, and take that request to court, perhaps we should all be paying attention.—Carole Levine