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6 young climate activists take European governments to court over climate change

STRASBOURG, France (AP) — Six young adults and children argued that governments across Europe aren’t doing enough to protect people from climate change at the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday in the latest and largest instance of activists taking governments to court to force climate action.

Legal teams for the 32 nations — which includes the 27 EU member countries, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Russia and Turkey — questioned the admissibility of the case as well as the claim that the plaintiffs are victims of climate change harm.

But lawyers representing the group from Portugal said the nations they’re suing have failed to adequately address human-caused warming and therefore violated some of the group’s fundamental rights. They insisted on the need for further and rapid action to meet climate targets that have been set for the end of the decade.

Andre Oliveira, center left, Catarine Mota, center right, siblings Martim, Mariana and Claudia Agostinho protest outside the European Court of Human Rights, where they are accusing 32 European governments of violating their human rights for what they say is a failure to adequately address climate change, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Strasbourg. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Andre Oliveira, center left, Catarine Mota, center right, siblings Martim, Mariana and Claudia Agostinho protest outside the European Court of Human Rights, where they are accusing 32 European governments of violating their human rights for what they say is a failure to adequately address climate change, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Strasbourg. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

“Today’s case is about the young. It is about the price that they are paying for the failure of states to tackle the climate emergency. It is about the harm that they will suffer during their lifetimes unless states step up to their responsibilities,” said Alison Macdonald, pleading on behalf of the young people.

Barrister Sudhanshu Swaroop, a counsel for United Kingdom, said national governments understand the threat of climate change and its challenges and are determined to tackle it through international cooperation. He said the plaintiffs should have gone through national courts first, and stressed that since they are not nationals of the countries they are attacking, other than Portugal, the European Court of Human Rights cannot have jurisdiction.

Afterward, some of the plaintiffs said they were dismayed by the nations’ arguments.

“It’s very sad what we’ve just heard,” Claudia Duarte Agostinho said. “The governments have just said that what is happening all around us is not important. They are minimizing the impact that climate change has on our human race.”

“I am shocked by the countries’ attempt to ignore the evidence that we’ve put in front of them, and trivialize the current state we are facing,” said 15-year-old André Oliveira. “But I remind hopeful that the court will understand the urgency of this situation and will side in favor of our case.”

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During the hearing, Macdonald urged the judges to show urgency in tackling the “biggest crisis that Europe and the world” have perhaps faced, and said that countries should play a bigger role in helping control planet-warming emissions.

“It cannot be within a state’s discretion whether or not to act to prevent catastrophic climate destruction,” she said.

Six young climate activists take 32 countries to court

Although there have been successful climate cases at national and regional levels — young environmentalists recently won a similar case in Montana — the activists’ legal team said that because national jurisdictions did not go far enough to protect their rights, the group felt compelled to take the matter to the Strasbourg-based court.

Arguing that their rights to life, to privacy and family life, and to be free from discrimination are being violated, the plaintiffs hope a favorable ruling will force governments to accelerate their climate efforts.

The court’s rulings are legally binding on member countries, and failure to comply makes authorities liable for hefty fines decided by the court. Liston said a ruling in favor of the group would also help future climate cases taken at domestic level by providing guidance to national courts.

But the plaintiffs — who are between 11 and 24 years of age and are not seeking financial compensation — needed to convince judges that they have been sufficiently affected to be considered as victims, and to prove that governments have a legal duty to make sure global warming is held to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

FILE - A seaplane discharges water on the flames as the fire advances in Alcabideche, outside Lisbon on July 25, 2023. Six young people from Portugal are arguing on Wednesday, Sept. 27, that governments across Europe aren't doing enough to protect people from the harms of climate change at the European Court of Human Rights. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)

A seaplane discharges water on the flames as the fire advances in Alcabideche, outside Lisbon on July 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)

“We have put forward evidence before the court that all of the respondents’ state climate policies are aligned to 3 degrees (Celsius) of warming within the lifetime of the applicants, or in the case of some states, worse than that,” lawyer Gerry Liston said. “No state has put forward evidence to counter that position.”

But the director of the European Commission legal service, speaking on behalf of the EU’s executive arm as a third party intervener in the case, defended the bloc’s climate action.

“The EU is going beyond the obligations of the Paris agreement,” said Daniel Calleja Crespo, citing the EU’s target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, and the goal of reaching climate neutrality by 2050, where most emissions are slashed and those remaining are canceled out.

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The world is way off track on limiting warming to 1.5 C, scientists say, with global average temperatures projected to rise by 2 to 4 degrees C (2.6 to 7.2 F) by 2100 on current trajectories of warming and emissions reductions plans.

The activists said climate change affects their daily lives and their studies, and damages both their physical and psychological well-being. They started judicial action in the wake of a series of deadly wildfires in central Portugal in 2017, where four of them live.

One of the judges asked the applicants to provide more details about how their quality of life has been affected. Macdonald mentioned their fatigue, their difficulty in sleeping, the impact on their mental abilities and the increasing difficulty for them to enjoy time outside of their homes.

Catarine Mota, right, siblings Martim, Mariana and Claudia Agostinho, left, and Sofia Oliveira, center right, protest outside the European Court of Human Rights, where they are accusing 32 European governments of violating their human rights for what they say is a failure to adequately address climate change, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Strasbourg. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Catarine Mota, right, siblings Martim, Mariana and Claudia Agostinho, left, and Sofia Oliveira, center right, protest outside the European Court of Human Rights, where they are accusing 32 European governments of violating their human rights for what they say is a failure to adequately address climate change, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Strasbourg. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Representing Portugal, Ricardo Matos questioned the “victim status” of the applicants, arguing that they have not established a direct link between states’ emissions and the harm suffered because of the wildfires in their country. Matos insisted that because climate change has an impact on everyone, no one should be allowed victim status.

It’s the first climate case to be filed with the court. Two other climate cases — one by an association of Swiss senior women against Switzerland, the other by a French lawmaker against France — have been brought before the court since.

Members of the Swiss association traveled to Strasbourg in support of the young Portuguese. They stood in front of the courthouse before the hearing, alongside a few dozens of other supporters.

“I wish them a future, because they are very young,” said Anne Mahrer, the group’s co-president. “We probably won’t be there to see it, but if we win, everybody wins.”

A decision is not expected for several months. It’s unclear whether the court will deliver its ruling on all three climate cases at the same time.

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