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Climate Crisis Case: European Court Hears Children’s Claims

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Three years ago, four children and two young adults from Portugal took legal action against European governments. They claimed that the governments had not done what they promised to address the climate crisis. On Wednesday, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg listened to their case.

The young people decided to do this after a very hot summer when Portugal had deadly wildfires. Cláudia Duarte Agostinho, one of the group, told Human Rights Watch at the time: “It was in 2017 when Portugal had its worst forest fires, many in my area. We realized that something needed to be done.”

Since then, the situation has gotten worse. In 2022, Portugal had its hottest year ever recorded, with six heatwaves. More heat, air pollution, and other extreme events linked to climate change are already hurting children across Europe.

The young people’s lawyers argue that the Portuguese government, along with other Council of Europe countries, have not reduced greenhouse gas emissions like they promised in the Paris Agreement, an international treaty on climate change. This is making the climate crisis worse, and it’s affecting their human rights, like the right to life, health, and not being treated unfairly.

A new report from the United Nations said that governments, including in Europe, are not doing enough to cut emissions. Also, the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that to keep the world from getting too hot (as the Paris Agreement says), governments can’t expand fossil fuel operations. But even with the IEA’s proof, some Council of Europe countries want to do that.

While European governments want the case to go away and say it should be dealt with in their own courts, Council of Europe human rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović said it’s important for the European Court to hear the case. She said, “If all states do the minimum, the world won’t meet the climate goals.”

This is not the first time the court has heard about how the climate crisis affects human rights. The Court has not made decisions in two other climate cases this year – one of them was brought by older women from Switzerland who said the same things about their rights. These cases are a chance for Europe’s top human rights court to explain how governments’ human rights responsibilities can help them deal with the climate crisis.