A glance into the courtroom revealed how unequal the fight is. Six young people from Portugal are suing virtually all of Europe before the European Court of Human Rights – for sloppy climate policy. On Wednesday, the hearing took place before the Grand Chamber.
The plaintiffs are between eleven and 24 years old, six lawyers represent their interests – the legal armada of the opposing side is more than ten times as large. It's a "David vs. Goliath" fight, supporters say.
The 32 countries complained of include all EU states as well as Great Britain, Norway, Switzerland, Russia and Turkey. Never before have so many nations been on trial at once. The climate lawsuit is therefore considered the largest to date. SPIEGEL had exclusive insights into the defense strategy of the countries (read more about this here.)
Already 2000 climate lawsuits worldwide
The young people complain that the sluggish climate policy of the countries endangers their fundamental rights. The right to life, the right to privacy and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of age. At the trial, they sat in the auditorium, in the second row. According to eyewitnesses, they seemed visibly nervous. They had to listen to how the 80 lawyers of the opposing side dissected their complaints, criticizing them as "mere assumptions" and "empty hypotheses".
Young people are by no means the only ones who are going to court for more climate protection. More than 2000,<> climate lawsuits have already been filed worldwide, according to a list by the Grantham Institute of the London School of Economics – a large proportion of them in the past three years alone. The Strasbourg court is also dealing with other climate petitions, such as senior citizens from Switzerland and a mayor from France.
Speed limit and coal phase-out due to climate lawsuit
Some climate lawsuits brought spectacular verdicts. In 2019, for example, the Netherlands' highest civil court ordered the Dutch government to drastically reduce emissions, confirming a previous ruling. As a result, it decided to phase out coal by 2030 and impose a speed limit. Since then, the speed limit on Dutch motorways has been 100 km/h during the day.
In this country, too, a climate lawsuit was successful. In 2021, the Federal Constitutional Court condemned the then Grand Coalition to amend the Climate Protection Act.
There is a lot at stake for the 32 countries that are now being complained about. If the young people's complaint is successful, nations would be legally obliged to revise their climate targets. In addition, comparable processes at the national level would have better chances.
This is how countries defend themselves
Accordingly, the countries vigorously reject the allegations. "The effects of climate change observed so far do not seem to have a direct impact on people's lives or health," says Greece. The alleged damage is too "abstract", Portugal argues.
Whether they will get away with it remains to be seen. The young people consider it a success that the court deals with their case. Because, contrary to what is usually the case, they did not first sue in the respective countries, but immediately went to the European Court of Human Rights. The Court could therefore have dismissed the appeal, but did not, and even instructed the Grand Chamber to deal with the case.
A verdict in Strasbourg is not expected until next year.
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