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Portuguese Youth File 'Unprecedented' Climate Lawsuit Against 33 European Countries

"I am very afraid for my future," said one plaintiff, "with so little time to stop this situation, we have to do everything in our power to compel governments to protect us." 

A house burns while flames threaten other homes in Mega Fundeira village, near Picha, in Leiria district, Portugal on June 20, 2017 (Photo: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

A house burns as a wildfire approaches Mega Fundeira village after taking dozens of lives on June 20, 2017 near Picha, in Leiria district, Portugal. (Photo: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

Six Portuguese young people on Thursday filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against 33 European countries accusing them of violating their human rights by failing to take adequate action to combat catastrophic global heating. 

Jornal de Noticias reports the youths' case was filed in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France.

The suit claims that the countries'—the 27 European Union member states plus Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom—climate policies are "too weak" to achieve the objectives of the Paris agreement, which mandates a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 50% by the year 2030 in order to limit the warming of the planet to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius.

The six plaintiffs in the case are 21-year-old Cláudia Agostinho, Catarina Mota (20), Martim Agostinho (17), Sofia Oliveira (15), André Oliveira (12), and Mariana Agostinho (8). They are supported by Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), a nonprofit advocacy group. Climate Home News reports it is the first-ever climate case brought before the ECHR, and could establish a precedent for future suits based on human rights arguments.

"It scares me to know that the record heatwaves that we have endured are just the beginning," Mota said at a Thursday press conference announcing the lawsuit. "With so little time to stop this situation, we have to do everything in our power to compel governments to protect us properly."

"I am very afraid for my future," Mota added. "I live with the feeling that every year my home becomes a more hostile place."

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Mota, who lives in the central Portuguse city of Leiria, said it was so hot there that she could no longer exercise outdoors. 

"If I have children, what kind of world shall I bring them up in?" she asked. "These are real concerns that I have every day. After the 2017 fires we realized that we must change and urgently stop climate change."

If the suit succeeds, the defendant nations—and their multinational corporations operating abroad—will be legally obligated to increase cuts in fossil fuel emissions. 

GLAN legal officer Gerry Liston told Climate Home News that the new case will "seek to build on the truly historic precedent" set by a Dutch court ruling ordering that country's government to make immediate emissions reductions in the name of human rights, including under the European Convention on Human Rights. 

While the ECHR does not have direct enforcement powers, Marc Wilpers QC, the lead counsel in the case, said that—if successful—it could "encourage domestic courts to take decisions that force European governments into taking the action needed to address the climate emergency."

According to a 2018 Climate Action Network report (pdf), "No single E.U. country is performing sufficiently in both ambition and progress in reducing carbon emissions." The report ranks Sweden and Portugal as leaders, followed by France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. "Aside from this group, a vast majority of member states achieve a score of less than half of the possible points," it states. 

The climate action group 350.org cites an expert report prepared for the case by Climate Analytics which describes Portugal as a climate change "hot spot" prone to increasingly deadly heatwaves. Four of the young plaintiffs live in Leiria, which is located in a region devastated by climate change-driven wildfires that killed scores of people in 2017. The other two are from the capital Lisbon, which in 2018 set a new all-time temperature record of 44° Celsius (111°F). 

Climate scientists predict (pdf) that there will be a 30-fold increase in heatwave deaths in Western Europe by the end of the century. 

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