Two out of three people in Europe will be affected by weather-related disasters by the end of the century, leading to as many as 250,000 deaths annually. These predictions come from the largest study to date on the impact of climate change, published in The Lancet Planetary Health. The authors call for states to “urgently curb climate change and minimise its unavoidable consequences, as emphasised by the Paris Agreement”.
We don’t need to wait until 2100 to see the devastating effects of climate change – we’re experiencing it today, not in the faraway shores of America or South-East Asia, but right here in Europe. In June this year, 156 fires erupted across Portugal, claiming over 60 lives and injuring over 200 people. This was the largest loss of life due to wildfires in Portugal’s history. These fires have been linked to climate change and the unusually high temperatures over the summer. Closer to home, we have seen extreme weather conditions, storms and floods this year. We’ve set our children on a bleak path and are doing very little to mitigate this.
However, where we have failed to take action, children are stepping up. In Portugal, kids are learning and talking about climate change. Mariana, five, thinks “adults should be more careful, they shouldn’t release smoke into the air.” She has joined a group of Portuguese children taking European states to the European Court of Human Rights in an innovative legal challenge against climate change.
The case is brought on their behalf by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), an organisation which seeks to challenge injustice through legal action for the disempowered. I spoke to Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn, to learn more about the legal challenge. Gearóid is the director of GLAN and an academic fellow at Lancaster University Law School where he specialises in public international law, human rights and public health governance. He tells me the challenge – spearheaded by Gerry Liston, a solicitor and legal officer at GLAN – came about following conversations with locals in Portugal around the fires and an acknowledgement that climate change had a strong role to play. “We wanted to bring ground breaking climate change litigation that takes a human rights approach to climate change,” he explains. “We want to challenge the inadequacy of current government policies with regards to greenhouse gas emissions. Our applicants are young because they are the ones who will be most affected by climate change.”
The UK, Portugal and 45 other members of the Council of Europe – an international human rights organisation distinct from the EU – are signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights. This treaty ensures our basic human rights are protected, such as the right to life and the right to private and family life. Convention rights have been enshrined in UK domestic law since Parliament passed the Human Rights Act 1998, and our government is bound to protect them even after Brexit.
In Gearóid words, GLAN’s case, broadly speaking, “relies on the idea that states who are signed up to the Convention have positive obligations to take reasonable measures to secure rights of people in their jurisdiction. The scientific evidence is crystal clear that climate change poses a risk to our enjoyment of rights. As European countries have the means to halt their emissions, this raises the question: why aren’t we?”
GLAN will be instructing Garden Court Chambers, a leading human rights set in the UK. The lawyers will be asking the Court to decide two things: “Firstly, that these countries must significantly strengthen their emissions-cutting policies and, secondly, that they must commit to keeping most of their existing fossil fuel reserves where they belong – in the ground.”
They hope the case can have impact outside of courtroom too by drawing public attention to the immediate impact of climate change in Europe. “This is not a future problem,” Gearóid asserts. “It’s here, affecting us now, and will affect future generations in stark and difficult ways. Kids have the right to be angry about our current state and action needs to be taken. This is the biggest threat to our human rights at the moment.”
Within three and a half weeks of launching their CrowdJustice campaign to raise funds for the case, they had reached their initial target of £20,000. They have since added a stretch target of £100,000, as more people continue to stand with Andre, nine, Simao, eleven, Mariana, five, Claudia, eighteen, Martim, fourteen, Leonor, eight, and Sofia, twelve, to support their CrowdJustice campaign and be a part of the solution. As Gearóid explains, “The money will go towards both enabling our lawyers and experts to fully prepare what will be a very complex case.”
In addition to their work on climate change, Gearóid and the team at GLAN are also working on additional projects looking at corporate complicity in violations of human rights, challenging slave labour supply chains and continuing their work on the intersection of international criminal law and migrant detention. Please support their important work and get involved – we all have skills to contribute and this fight belongs to us all.