Last autumn, a group of Portuguese children and young people sued 33 European countries for insufficient climate action. According to young people, states have not complied with the Paris Climate Agreement and have taken the necessary steps to keep the climate below the agreed 1.5 degrees. This is the first time that a complaint about climate change has been filed to the ECHR. The accused are EU countries - including Finland - as well as Great Britain, Norway, Russia, Turkey, Switzerland and Ukraine.
According to GLAN, a British-Irish organization that has raised crowdfunding for the lawsuit, the reason for the challenge is the countries failure to prevent a climate catastrophe. None of the accused countries has taken adequate measures to cut emissions, the complaint states. At the same time, young people invoke, for example, their right to live and the right to live in a safe and healthy environment. The complaint is based on the severe heat waves and forest fires that Portugal has suffered in recent years. Some of the young people who filed the lawsuit are from forest fire areas.
Just recently, the court ruled that states have time to respond to young people until the end of May. Even if the climate action does not eventually progress to action, it is already historic. Six children and young people have brought to light an issue that should be taken for granted: the climate is a human rights issue.
News of the harsh scenarios of the climate crisis is becoming more frequent today than passing weather reports. While we already know that climate change affects everything living on Earth, a viable planet has not been considered as fundamental a right as freedom of speech or religion or that no one should be tortured. These young people were just what we needed to realize the point. They sued states because the current inadequate climate action threatens their right to life, mental and physical well-being and discriminates them against the well-being of current generations and it is they, who will bear the worst consequences.
Young people already have a foretaste of what is to come. In Portugal, for example, temperatures have risen to as high as 44 degrees Celsius in recent years. In 2017, more than 100 people died in wildfires fuelled by drought and heat.
The word ringing around the climate and other environmental agreements must end today. They must be made genuinely binding, compliance with them must be monitored and infringements must have consequences. It would also be crazy to think that, for example, with agreements between companies, the parties could choose for themselves whether they would comply with the agreements.
Fortunately, things seem to be going in a better direction in this regard. The number of climate and environmental lawsuits is growing, which may predict a more permanent change in thinking and attitudes. For example, the legal victory made by a Dutch NGO in the second year is considered as a significant precedent. The organization got through with its demands in court that the Netherlands must tighten its climate actions.
Last year, the UN Commission on Human Rights also made a ground-breaking policy on human rights. According to it, a person who has become a refugee due to the climate crisis must not be returned to a country where his or her life is threatened by climate change. People who have had to flee their homes because of the climate are therefore entitled to international protection.
We must address that these young advocates and climate cases have a long road ahead. These climate cases are generally ground-breaking. Environment and climate issues have never been in a centre of international relations. This means that we can safely say that international law has not focused either on environment issues. First environment related, important, case was ban of cfcs. CFC substance was a main reason why the ozone layer got thinner.
However, IR has focused more on “high politics” such as security and inter-state relations. International law has not been major tool for normative change until end of WWII. It was created at beginning of the 1700th century to make sure that individual states do not intervene domestic politics of other states, so that peace may endure. Even after WWII, the law was more or less guiding tool for political actors and it had to step aside once a major interest was at stake. UN charter itself has been formed that it gives so-called veto states possibility put they self-interests ahead of common and mutual accepted purposes such as climate actions.
From traditional legal perspective, when Portuguese youth sues many countries for inadequate actions, it is something quite new. ECHR solves cases that residents of the member states of the European Conventions of Human rights bring before it, but the court proceedings are ultima ratio, which means that local processes must be completed first before the ECHR possess jurisdiction. If this case enters to formal proceedings, it would mean a significant change. We may expect stress between individual states, because these climate issues make possible that states or even foreign residents intervene on politics, which has been deemed to remain under the domestic jurisdiction and then part of sovereignty. Traditionally, International or regional law see individual humans as subjects of domestic and therefore neglect them. Climate actions hold a potential to change or even abolish this perspective. It may become vital, if global community seeks ways to put states responsible in future.
It is easy to nullify the demands of young people, either by treating them as cute mascots or as victims of propaganda. However, what if it is acknowledged that climate change is precisely the crisis of young people and that they own the right to it. Sometimes it was fashionable to talk about the digital generation. Today, children and young people are climate-resistant. There is no separate “pre-old” time for them. They have grown up with the climate crisis. Like “digital skills” for digitals, climate skills define their worldview. The stakes are high, because in the end biodiversity is a fundamental requirement for all the rights that people may claim to be existed. Therefore, climate actions are ways to protect the right to life.