Climate security is a human right – and governments are responsible

Last week saw a significant legal victory in the European Court of Human Rights which ruled that the Swiss government had failed to uphold human rights under its climate inaction.

History was made in April 2024, in a case brought by the KilimaSeniorinnen, a group of elderly Swiss women who claimed that the Swiss government had failed to respect their human rights obligations by not taking the climate action necessary to protect their human rights.

KilimaSeniorinnen argued that the women’s right to respect for life was being compromised by heatwaves, to which their age makes them particularly susceptible, forcing them indoors to struggle with the health implications of these extreme weather events.

Although two other climate cases brought to the ECHR during the same period were dismissed before being heard, KilmaSeniorinnen v the Government of Switzerland still represents enormous progress for proponents of climate litigation because of the multifaceted implications of such a victory. 

The case shows that the Swiss government is legally accountable for climate inaction which takes them away from their role in meeting the temperature goal of 1.5°C set out in the Paris Convention. This should inspire significantly more urgency than the target of 2°C to which the courts have held nations accountable so far in Germany and in the Netherlands. It also sets the precedent for the governments of other European countries, including the UK, to be held to account.

Gerry Liston, representing the Portuguese children whose case was dismissed in the same session, expressed that “the most significant outcome of the ruling was the court’s recognition that Switzerland’s policies are not ‘science-based”’, as ‘“no European government’s climate policies are aligned with anything near 1.5ºC, so it will be clear to those working on climate litigation in those countries that there’s now a clear basis to bring a case in their national courts.” 

This was reflected in the ruling by the acknowledgement that there had been critical gaps” in the country’s policies to tackle climate change, such as failing to quantify the reductions in greenhouse gases in order to meet the targets of the Paris accord.

Indeed, holding someone to account over failing to meet emissions targets represents significant progress in environmental law. The issue of not being able to prove direct correlation between specific instances of greenhouse gases and environmental degradation or human rights issues has long been a challenge, resulting in carbon majors continuing to pump emissions into the atmosphere, unopposed (and often supported) by governments. 

The issue of the courts’ inability to hold carbon majors to account for their emissions has recently come to the forefront of the battlefield of environmental law in the failure of a recent case put forward by leaders in climate litigation, Client Earth. This sought to hold Shell accountable for its projected emissions, arguing that current projections failed to protect shareholder interests by their inability to safeguard the future of the company, as targets including net zero ambitions put pressure on companies to scrutinise their climate commitments. The ECHR’s ruling, therefore, represents a significant shift in moving the focus towards government accountability.

This will have a ripple effect on carbon majors: governments now being legally responsible for their countries’ emissions, they might think twice before supporting big oil and gas projects, as in the recently approved North Sea Oil expansion in the UK. Although there is a long way to go in climate litigation which holds the companies directly responsible for their emissions to account, we can find hope in the fact that governments are increasingly shouldering this burden themselves. 

We would do well to remember the words of the tirelessly committed climate activist Greta Thunberg who, upon being interviewed about the ECHR’s ruling, said: ‘this is only the beginning for climate litigation’. We can look forward to many results from this ruling: cases across European countries which will hold governments to account for their emissions; increased pressure on governments to make science-based plans to reduce their emissions; recognition that vulnerable groups are particularly susceptible to environmental breakdown.

It is, however, important to remember that litigation that confers responsibility after the event, is limited in its retrospective effect. How many people have already died in heatwaves, and other extreme weather events, before a court ruling that says governments are responsible? One of the benefits of litigation is the increased pressure it puts on governments to act in accordance with human rights obligations – but this is only after they have been deemed to have been violated in the first instance. Government policy has an earlier, and arguably bigger, effect. 

In this tenth consecutive month of the hottest global temperatures ever recorded, when people are increasingly dying from climate-caused extreme weather events, it is impossible to ignore the crisis. In this election year, you have the power to vote for a government which takes this seriously. With both major parties failing on climate commitment – the Tories are  funding major new oil projects against EU directive, whilst Labour has recently scrapped its environmental package promise of £28 billion funding – in constituencies where a Green victory might beout of reach, it’s hard to know where to go. 

If it is tactics and efficacy we are prioritising then our focus might go to supporting those on the frontline of climate campaigns. Client Earth, for instance, has written a manifesto on the policies necessary for environmental and human rights protection. Campaign groups including Green New Deal Rising have an action plan for electing a government committed to climate action. 

One thing is clear. As much as our government scrambles to rewrite the law to suppress opposition to their climate atrocities, it is becoming increasingly clear with the passage of time that the international courts are set to support claimants, and not those who burn our planet to line their own pockets. In this knowledge, we may neither rest nor feel at ease: but we might find the spark of hope we need to double down on our own commitment to this cause.

Lois Ryan

The header image was taken from this article by Greenpeace.


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