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In landmark climate ruling, European court faults Switzerland

An aerial view of sheep near Belalp, Switzerland, on Aug. 26, 2023. A glacier once allowed livestock to walk across the canyon to reach the summer pastures. After it melted, a path was cut into the canyon wall. Europe’s top human rights court said this week that the Swiss government had violated its citizens’ rights by not doing enough to stop climate change. (George Steinmetz/The New York Times)

By Isabella Kwai and Emma Bubola

Europe’s top human rights court said earlier this week that the Swiss government had violated its citizens’ rights by not doing enough to stop climate change, a landmark ruling that experts said could bolster activists hoping to use human rights law to hold governments to account.

In the case, which was brought by a group called KlimaSeniorinnen, or Senior Women for Climate Protection, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, said Switzerland had failed to meet its target in reducing carbon emissions and must act to address that shortcoming.

The women, 64 and older, said their health was at risk during heat waves related to global warming. They argued that the Swiss government, by not doing enough to mitigate against global warming, had violated their rights.

It is the latest decision in a broader wave of climate-related lawsuits that aim to push governments to act against global warming, and countries’ domestic courts have handled similar cases. But experts said it was the first instance of an international court determining that governments were legally obligated to meet their climate targets under human rights law.

“It is the first time that an international court has affirmed clearly that a climate crisis is a human rights crisis,” said Joie Chowdhury, a senior lawyer with the Center for International Environmental Law, an international group that voiced its support for KlimaSeniorinnen’s case.

Although the decision is legally binding, experts say that states are ultimately responsible for complying.

Annalisa Savaresi, a professor of environmental law at the University of East Finland, said she expected the country to heed the court’s ruling. “Simply because Switzerland is Switzerland: It’s a rule-of-law state, it’s not a rogue state,” she said. “They are keen to be seen as doing the right thing.”

With many other countries failing to meet their climate targets, the ruling could also encourage more members of the public to sue, experts said.

“I expect we’re going to see a rash of lawsuits in other European countries, because most of them have done the same thing,” said Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York. “They have failed to meet their climate goals, and failed to set climate targets that are adequate.”

Climate lawyers also hope the ruling will inform other upcoming opinions by international courts, including the International Court of Justice.

The European ruling, Gerrard said, was unlikely to affect court decisions in the United States, where states, cities and counties are suing fossil fuel companies over the damages caused by climate change and young people are filing lawsuits over what they say is a failure by the state and federal governments to protect them from the effects of global warming.

But, Gerrard said, “the idea that climate change impaired fundamental rights resonated throughout the cases.”

The court’s ruling Tuesday covered three cases in which members of the public argued that their governments, by not doing enough to mitigate against climate change, were violating the European Convention on Human Rights. It rejected as inadmissible two of the cases, which were brought by the former mayor of a coastal town in France and a group of young people in Portugal.

With heat waves sweeping Switzerland in recent summers, the litigants, who worked on the lawsuit for nearly a decade with Greenpeace and a team of lawyers, pointed to research showing that older women are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

Four of the women said they had heart and respiratory diseases that put them at risk of death on very hot days. Many others in the group, who live across Switzerland, said they struggled with fatigue, lightheadedness and other symptoms because of the extreme heat.

Under its climate commitments, Switzerland had vowed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2020 compared with 1990 levels. But the ruling said that between 2013 and 2020, Switzerland had reduced its emissions levels only around 11%. In addition, it said, the country had failed to use tools that could quantify its efforts to limit emissions, such as a carbon budget.

By not acting “in good time and in an appropriate and consistent manner,” the ruling said, the Swiss government had failed to protect its citizens’ rights.

The court ordered Switzerland to put in place measures to address those shortcomings, and to pay the KlimaSeniorinnen 80,000 euros (about $87,000) to cover their costs and expenses.

The Swiss government had argued that human rights law does not apply to climate change, and that addressing it should be a political process. But Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice, which represents the country at the European court, said in a statement Tuesday that Swiss authorities would analyze the judgment and examine the measures the country needs to take.

The court said that given the complexity of the issues involved, the Swiss government was best placed to decide how to proceed. A committee of government representatives for the court’s member states will supervise Switzerland’s adoption of measures to address the ruling.

Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, a co-president of the KlimaSeniorinnen, called the decision “a victory for all generations” in a statement Tuesday.

A second case the court considered focused on a complaint regarding Grande-Synthe, a French town on the coast of the English Channel that faces an increased flooding risk because of climate change. Damien Carême, who was the town’s mayor from 2001-19, argued in the lawsuit that France had endangered Grande-Synthe by taking insufficient steps to prevent global warming.

The court ruled that his case was inadmissible, however, because Carême, who is now a member of the European Parliament, no longer lives in France and therefore no longer has a legally relevant link to the town.

The court also ruled inadmissible a lawsuit brought by six Portuguese young people against 33 Paris Climate Agreement signatory countries, including Portugal, for not complying with their commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions. The applicants argued that the current and future effects of climate change — including heat waves, wildfires and the smoke from those blazes — affected their lives, well-being and mental health.

The court ruled that the applicants had not exhausted all of the legal options in Portugal and that bringing a complaint against the other 32 countries would entail an “unlimited expansion” of the states’ jurisdiction.

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