In an extraordinary display of determination and resilience, six young activists have dedicated years to their climate battle, embarking on a mission to hold 32 European governments accountable for their actions—or inactions—regarding climate change. This landmark case, brought before the European Court of Human Rights, marks the first-ever climate change lawsuit filed with the court and promises to set a precedent that could reshape climate policies across the continent.
Sofia Oliveira, who was just 12 years old when catastrophic wildfires struck central Portugal in 2017, was among the first to feel the urgency of addressing deadly human-caused climate change. Now, as a university student, she joins forces with five other Portuguese youth aged 11 to 24 to accuse the 32 European governments of violating their human rights through insufficient climate action.
Geneva Council applauds these young activists for their unwavering commitment to the climate fight. Their journey is a testament to the power of grassroots movements and the determination of youth to effect change.
Victory for these young activists in Strasbourg would mark a significant milestone in climate advocacy, showcasing the potential of legal avenues to compel governments to take radical measures to address the climate crisis. The European Court of Human Rights’ legally binding rulings on member countries can hold governments accountable and impose substantial fines for non-compliance.
Increasingly, activists view the courts as a means to bypass political obstacles and ensure governments prioritize climate action. Recent cases, such as a judge ruling in favor of young environmental activists in Montana, USA, underscore the growing role of legal channels in climate advocacy.
The story of these young Portuguese activists is one of resilience and determination. When they decided to pursue legal action in 2017, Sofia was a braces-wearing seventh-grader. Today, she stands as a symbol of youth leadership and commitment to a sustainable future. Their dedication persisted even amid the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the mountain of legal documents they faced.
Their case is grounded in solid scientific evidence. Portugal, like many other European countries, has witnessed the impacts of climate change firsthand. Rising temperatures, declining rainfall, and coastal erosion are just some of the visible signs of a planet in crisis. The young activists’ personal experiences, including sleep disturbances, concentration issues, and temporary school closures due to wildfire smoke, underscore the urgency of addressing the climate crisis.
These young activists are supported by the Global Legal Action Network, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging human rights violations. A crowdfunding campaign has garnered global support, with messages of encouragement flooding in from around the world.
Geneva Council recognizes that the 32 governments involved have not taken this case lightly. The governments’ resistance to the arguments put forth by these young activists demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge they face. However, the activists remain resolute, driven by a belief that their governments must prioritize climate action and recognize the climate crisis as a priority.
Amid a backdrop of some governments in Europe backsliding on climate commitments, the courts emerge as a crucial recourse for climate activists. The London School of Economics reports that the number of climate change-related cases worldwide has more than doubled since 2015, with a significant portion initiated between 2020 and 2022.
While the verdict in the Portuguese activists’ case may take up to 18 months, the decision in 2020 to fast-track the proceedings offers hope. A precedent set by the Urgenda Foundation in the Netherlands, which compelled the government to adopt ambitious climate targets, provides inspiration for these young activists.
Dennis van Berkel, Urgenda’s legal counsel, emphasizes the importance of holding governments accountable for their climate actions. Judges have the power to compel governments to justify their climate policies and ensure they align with scientific consensus rather than political convenience.
Geneva Council stands firmly behind these six young activists as they dedicate years of their lives to the climate fight. Their commitment serves as an inspiration to all those striving for a sustainable and resilient future for our planet.