October 6, 2023 (5 min read)
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) began hearing yesterday (Oct. 5) an unprecedented lawsuit brought by six young people from Portugal against 33 European countries over the climate crisis. The plaintiffs accuse governments of insufficient action to address climate change, which violates their fundamental human rights, including to life and physical and mental well-being. They demand that countries drastically cut their pollution and force companies based within their borders to reduce emissions across their whole supply chains in order to protect the citizens of the world.
The case, filed in September 2020 and involving all EU member states as well as the UK, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, and Turkey, is the largest climate case ever to be heard by the ECHR. And it is likely to have important consequences. If the claim is successful, it could result in orders from national courts for governments to accelerate climate action. If the court rules against the youth, neglecting human rights obligations in climate cases, this will likely have a negative influence on other similar disputes. And even if the court dismisses the claim on procedural grounds or decides that it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear it, it will not go unnoticed– the case will at least gain public attention and increase public awareness of the crisis.
This dispute is part of a huge global wave of climate litigation that governments and businesses should be watching for. Individuals and organizations are suing state and federal governments for their failure to act quickly enough on climate change and for enabling the activities of the fossil fuel industry rather than protecting society. On the other hand, states, cities, and other actors are suing corporations for their emissions, their false statements about their climate actions, and for knowing for decades that they were contributing to global warming without warning people.
Although there are not yet many court decisions on climate battles, some that have already been announced are significant. In the United States, the Supreme Court in April 2023 ruled that cities and states could seek to hold energy companies accountable for climate change in state courts, not just federal courts. This is of great importance because litigants can file lawsuits in all 50 US states, increasing the chances of obtaining a favorable decision. In August 2022, a judge ruled in favor of Montana youth in a landmark climate case in the country. The decision says that the state’s failure to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional. The ruling means that Montana, a major coal and gas-producing state that gets one-third of its energy by burning coal, must consider climate change when deciding whether to approve or renew fossil fuel projects. Both climate litigation in general and these decisions, in particular, are in line with a global push from diverse stakeholders to hold companies responsible for their externalities.
European Court of Human Rights. Grand Chamber hearing concerning 33 member States. https://www.echr.coe.int/w/grand-chamber-hearing-concerning-33-member-states
Silvia R. Fregoni |Research Fellow, Berkeley Center for Law & Business