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Irish lawyers represent six young people taking 32 countries to court over climate naction

SIX YOUNG PEOPLE ranging from ages 11 to 24 are taking more than two dozen governments to a European court to argue that states’ inaction on the climate crisis are causing damage to individual lives.

A hearing will open today in Strasbourg at the European Court of Human Rights in a case that could have major legal implications for the expectations placed on governments to take climate action.

Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn, one of two Irish lawyers representing the young people and the founding director of the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), described it as a “David and Goliath case” for the climate.

“It is unprecedented in its scale and consequences,” Dr Ó Cuinn said. 

“It also makes legal history. Never before have so many countries had to defend themselves in front of any court anywhere in the world.” 

Catarina (23), Cláudia (24), Martim (20), Mariana (11), Sofia (18) and André (15) are from Portugal but are taking the case against 32 governments, including Ireland, because the greenhouse gas emissions produced by individual countries adds up to collectively increase average temperatures around the world. 

The applicants will try to prove to the Court that they have been and will be personally impacted by climate change as a result of world leaders’ failures.

Three of the young people suffer from respiratory conditions and will draw on evidence that an increase of just one degree Celsius in average temperatures would lead to a 1.7% increase in respiratory morbidity in Portugal. They will point out that extreme heat “can cause heatstroke and exacerbate chronic conditions, including respiratory diseases”.

Four of the six suffer from health conditions sensitive to pollution and allergens. They will argue that climate change will expose people in Portugal to higher levels of pollution and potentially increase levels of aero-allergens that exacerbate respiratory diseases such as asthma.

Already, “during periods of extreme heat, the Applicants have had to curtail their usual youthful activities of playing in, exercising in and otherwise enjoying the outdoors”, their submission to the Court says. “Extremely hot nights have also made it difficult for them to sleep, making them more tired and less productive on the following days.” 

The young people have experienced wildfires that were made more likely and more widespread due to climate change. One reports having been unable to attend school due to a wildfire, while another says they suffer from anxiety ahead of the summer season due to their past experience of the “horror” of the fires.

Their case points to evidence from a survey of 10,000 young people that found 65% of respondents in Portugal were either extremely worried or very worried about climate change, the highest level of worry among European countries.

The lead author of the study assessed the six applicants and found that they are “all experiencing symptoms of anxiety and/or depression linked to climate change”. For three of them, their “prolonged climate anxiety” constitutes an “adverse childhood experience” which can lead to “physical and mental health problems throughout a person’s life”. 

The defence

The governments named in the case cover every EU member state, including Ireland, and Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK. The applicants had initially included Ukraine but dropped the country from their case after Russia’s invasion began last year.

The states have submitted a joint response (with the exception of Russia, the Netherlands, France and Switzerland) to the applicants’ case, which lays out a map of how they will attempt to defend themselves.

They will recognise the “severity of the threat that climate change presents to the global community and the imperative for urgent action to address that threat”.

However, they will argue that the “gravity of the challenge climate change presents is not what is at issue in this case”.

A key line of defence that the responding governments will take is that the applicants’ have not proven they are personally impacted by the actions or lack of action taken by other countries.

“The applicants focus on the question of whether they are victims of climate change, rather than the question of whether they are victims of any act or omission by the respondents,” the governments have stated in a submission.

The governments will also seek to discredit some of the evidence presented by the young people and to argue that the matter falls outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

‘Legal gamechanger’

GLAN senior lawyer Gerry Liston, who is also from Ireland and representing the applicants, said that the case would be a legal “gamechanger”.

This judgement would act like a binding treaty imposed by the court on the respondents, requiring them to rapidly accelerate their climate mitigation efforts.

“In legal terms, it would be a gamechanger.”

For the six young applicants, the case represents an attempt to fight for a world where they can live safely without the looming threat of climate crisis.

Speaking ahead of the court hearing, 18-year-old Sofia dos Santos Oliveira described how “climate change has had a profound impact on our lives”.

“It has limited our ability to partake in activities like going out and enjoying the day. It is not normal. Heatwaves damage our daily lives.”

23-year-old Catarina dos Santos Mota said: “Governments around the world have the power to stop this, and Europe’s governments are choosing not to stop this.”

When governments fail to protect us, it’s the job of the European Court of Human Rights to step in.

“Since we have begun, we have felt the impact of the climate crisis getting worse and worse. In 2023, July was the hottest month on record. It is terrifying to think this is just the beginning.”