- Written by Celine Gerrit
- BBC World News
“What I felt was fear,” says Claudia Duarte Agostino as she recalls the intense heatwave and fires that swept through Portugal in 2017, killing more than 100 people. “The bushfires made me really worry about what kind of future I would have.”
Claudia, 24, her brother Martim, 20, and sister Mariana, 11, are among six young Portuguese men who have sued 32 governments, including all EU member states, the UK, Norway, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey.
They accuse countries of not taking enough action on climate change and failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
This case is the first of its kind to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. If successful, it could have legally binding consequences for the governments involved. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for later on Wednesday.
The six claimants, aged between 11 and 24, argue that the forest fires that have occurred in Portugal every year since 2017 are a direct result of global warming.
They claim that their basic human rights – including the rights to life, privacy, family life and freedom from discrimination – are being violated by governments’ reluctance to combat climate change.
They say they have already experienced significant impacts, especially due to extreme temperatures in Portugal, forcing them to spend time indoors and restricting their ability to sleep, concentrate or exercise. Some also suffer from environmental anxiety, allergies and respiratory diseases including asthma.
None of the young applicants are seeking financial compensation.
“I want a green world free of pollution,” says 11-year-old Mariana. “I want to be healthy.” “I’m in this situation because I’m really worried about my future. I’m afraid of what the place we live in will look like.”
Claudia says Mariana still gets scared when she hears helicopters flying overhead, which reminds her of firefighters in 2017, when more than 50,000 acres (78 square miles, 202 square kilometers) of forest were destroyed, with ash falling from wildfires. . Their home is miles away.
“I think it’s really amazing that Mariana was involved in this case, and that she had such a conscience at her age,” says Claudia.
“But it’s also very worrying: Why does she need to think about these things? She should be playing with her friends and dancing to TikTok videos instead.”
Lawyers representing the six young claimants are expected to argue in court that current policies pursued by the 32 governments put the world on track towards a 3°C global warming by the end of this century.
“It’s catastrophic heat,” says Gearóid O Quinn, director of the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), which supports applicants.
“Without urgent action by governments, the young applicants involved in this issue will face extreme, unbearable heat waves that will harm their health and well-being. We know that governments have the power to do more to stop this, but they are choosing not to act,” he says.
Based on a survey of 10,000 children and young people between the ages of 16 and 25 in 10 countries around the world, the study indicated that the observed failure of governments to respond to the climate crisis was linked to increased distress.
In separate and joint responses to the case, the two governments say the claimants have not sufficiently proven that they have suffered as a direct result of climate change or forest fires in Portugal.
They claim that there is no evidence to show that climate change poses a direct risk to human life or health, and also argue that climate policy falls outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
“These six young people from Portugal, ordinary individuals worried about their futures, will face 32 legal teams and hundreds of lawyers representing governments whose inaction is already harming them,” says Gearóid O Coen.
“So this is a real David versus Goliath issue seeking structural change to put us on a much better path in terms of our future.”
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatovic, who intervened in the case as a third party, says this case has the potential to determine how countries deal with climate and human rights issues.
“It’s actually a wake-up call to member states, to international organizations, to all of us who have a special opportunity to show that we care, that it’s not just words on paper. It’s not just about checking a box and saying we support.” She told the BBC: “This or that decision. It’s about changing our policies.”
The European Court of Human Rights ruling would legally oblige the 32 governments to step up their climate action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out fossil fuels.
It would also affect domestic courts that have been seeking guidance from the European Court of Human Rights on issues related to climate change. A ruling is expected within nine to 18 months.
Claudia says she often thinks about whether she should have children in the future, and wonders what state of the world they will live in. “But winning this case means there will finally be hope,” she says.
“It will mean that people are really listening to us and that they are as concerned as we are, and that governments will really have to take action to do something about it. It will be great for everything – for our anxiety, for our future.” “. Many things could follow after that.”
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