STRASBOURG, France (CN) - Lawyers for a group of Portuguese young people told judges at Europe's top human rights court on Wednesday that countries are not doing enough to stop climate change, in a case brought against a record-breaking 32 countries.
The group told the European Court of Human Rights that the government's failure to act has led to rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather events, which prevent them from attending school and even going outside.
"It cannot be within a state's discretion whether or not to act to prevent catastrophic climate destruction," lawyer Alison Macdonald told the Strasbourg-based court.
Macdonald is one of two lawyers representing six Portuguese youths, ranging in age from 11 to 24, who made a nearly 24-hour journey by train and bus from Portugal to attend the hearing.
The case is the latest legal push to force countries to take action against the climate crisis.
"Inside the courtroom, they tried to say they understand that climate change is a problem, but it became clear today that they are denying the reality," one of the applicants, 24-year-old Claudia Duarte Agostinho, told reporters after the hearing.
In a rare move, the group has brought their case directly to the court, rather than pursuing legal action in Portugal.
The more than 30 countries named in the complaint criticized this move.
"There was no attempt by the applicants to invoke, let alone exhaust, domestic remedies," Belgian lawyer Isabelle Niedlispacher said. Typically, the rights court only accepts cases from people who have run out of options in national courts.
Niedlispacher was supported by lawyers from the United Kingdom and Portugal. The trio spoke on behalf of the entire group during the hearing.
The case was initially brought against 33 counties, but lawyers for the young people dropped the case against Ukraine after Russia's invasion. The Russian Federation is named and was the only country that wasn't represented. The Council of Europe, the body which oversees the court, expelled Russia after the war began, but the proceedings were already underway.
Sudhanshu Swaroop, the lawyer who represented the United Kingdom, criticized the group for bringing their case against so many nations. "They are residents of Portugal," he said.
Lawyers for the young people argue climate change is bigger than one nation. "Greenhouse gases do not respect national boundaries," Macdonald said.
She also pushed back on the idea that the group should bring cases in every single country before coming to the ECHR, arguing the task of beginning a case against all 46 of the court's member states would be enormous.
They chose to direct the complaint at all of the 27 European Union countries, plus the remaining Council of Europe countries that are large greenhouse gas emitters, like Russia and Turkey.
This case is one of many currently before international courts. The ECHR held hearings in two cases earlier this year dealing with climate change. A group of senior Swiss women and a former French mayor have brought a pair of complaints to the court, claiming their respective governments have failed to adequately respond to climate change, in violation of their human rights.
A U.N. maritime tribunal held more than two weeks of hearings earlier this month into the international legal obligations countries have to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The request for an advisory opinion at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea was brought by a group of small island states which say that are especially vulnerable to climate change.
In what could have the broadest impact, the United Nations has asked the International Court of Justice to issue a legal opinion on what obligations countries have to protect their citizens from climate change.
Climate activists in the Netherlands and Germany have succeeded in bringing cases against their governments for failing to act. The Dutch Supreme Court ordered the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, in the landmark Urgenda decision that has been cited in all of the other proceedings.
Lawyers for The Netherlands argued that Urgenda means the nation is already being held accountable.
Experts say climate change is increasing temperatures, raising sea levels and worsening extreme weather events. The world is nowhere near the aim of the 2015 Paris climate agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Instead, global average temperatures are projected to rise by 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (2.6 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.
According to court President Siofra O'Leary, judges will begin with their deliberations in the case Thursday. A decision is expected sometime next year.
Source: Courthouse News Service