Six Portuguese young people are suing the governments of 33 countries, arguing their human rights have been violated by a widespread failure to mitigate the climate crisis.
Lawyers for six Portuguese children and young adults on Wednesday expressed hope that their unprecedented climate case, brought to the European Court of Human Rights three years after it was first filed, will ultimately be a "game-changer" that forces governments in Europe and across the globe to take decisive action to address the climate emergency.
Ranging in age from 11 to 24, the six plaintiffs sat on Wednesday before nearly two dozen human rights judges and attorneys representing nearly three dozen nations, determined to prove to the court that countries across Europe have violated their fundamental rights by allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue heating the planet despite warnings from energy experts and scientists.
In Duarte Agostinho v. Portugal and 32 Others, the plaintiffs are seeking not financial relief but a ruling from the court that would compel the governments of the 27 E.U. member-nations as well as Russia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, and Turkey to speed up their efforts to keep planetary heating below 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.
Because the human rights court's rulings are legally binding for E.U. members, a decision in favor of the young plaintiffs "would act like a binding treaty imposed by the court on the respondents, requiring them to rapidly accelerate their climate mitigation efforts," Gerry Liston of the U.K.-based Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), told the Associated Press.
"In legal terms, it would be a game-changer," Liston told the outlet.
Four of the plaintiffs live in central Portugal, where wildfires killed at least 66 people in 2017. The country faced more blazes this summer—the hottest on record—as well as a record-breaking heatwave which saw the temperature in the central region of the country rise to 46.4°C (115.5°F), which at least one plaintiff said had interfered with schoolwork, and which climate scientists said would not have happened without planetary heating and fossil fuel extraction.
"Without urgent action to cut emissions, [the place] where I live will soon become an unbearable furnace," 20-year-old Martim Agostinho, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
Lawyers for the defendants claimed the group should have litigated the case in the domestic court system, with Belgian legal expert Isabelle Niedlispacher arguing before the court that the plaintiffs did not make an attempt "to invoke, let alone exhaust domestic remedies."
But GLAN, which says it "pursues innovative legal actions across borders," dismissed the claims, noting that the fossil-fueled climate emergency and the extreme weather it's causing have no respect for countries' boundaries and are placing the entire planet at risk.
"It cannot be within a state's discretion whether or not to act to prevent catastrophic climate destruction," said Alison MacDonald, another attorney representing the young people.
Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, called the case "truly historic" because the governments of dozens of countries have been compelled to respond.
"These governments are forced to lay out a legal defense justifying the gap between their climate policies and what science says is needed to avoid climate breakdown," said Duyck. "In the broader context of global litigation, this case wields remarkable influence, given that the European Court of Human Rights holds a prominent role in setting legal precedents within Europe and beyond."
The case was brought to the court a month after a state judge in Montana sided with 16 young residents who argued that the state had violated their rights by promoting fossil fuel extraction. The United Nations Environment Program released a report in July showing that climate litigation has emerged as an important driver of far-reaching, concrete action by governments to reduce emissions.
Gearoid O'Cuinn, another lawyer for GLAN, said defendants resorted to "climate denialism" when they argued, as Greece did, that the "effects of climate change, as recorded so far, do not seem to directly affect human life or human health."
"European governments' climate policies are consistent with a catastrophic 3° of global heating this century," said Liston. "For the brave youth-applicants, that is a life sentence of heat extremes which are unimaginable even by today's rapidly deteriorating standards."
"The European Court of Human Rights was set up following the horrors of World War II to hold European governments to account for failing to protect human rights," Liston added. "Never has there been as urgent a need for the court to do so than in this case."