Portuguese Youth Climate Activists Take 33 Climate Laggard Nations to Court

European Court of Human Rights. Image: CherryX/Wikimedia Commons

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

In what is widely viewed as an “unprecedented climate case,” six Portuguese youth activists have “filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights” against 33 industrialized countries, as Holly Young reported for EcoWatch. These activists argue that these 33 countries, including the UK, Germany, and Italy, “have failed to enact the emission cuts needed to protect their future.” 

Why This Matters: The ECHR “does not have direct enforcement power.” However, as Chloé Farand reported for Climate Home News, this is the first case on climate change that the ECHR will potentially see. If it is deemed admissible, it “could set an important precedent, showing the way for other climate lawsuits based on human rights arguments.”

“I am afraid for my future.” 

These climate change activists range from ages 8 to 21. The case comes on the tail-end of an almost three-year crowdfunding effort that began in October 2017, and is now supported by the Global Legal Action Network.

As one of the activists, Catarina Mota, aged 20, told reporters, “I live with the feeling that every year my home becomes a more hostile place.” She continues, “If I have children, what kind of world shall I bring them up in? These are real concerns that I have everyday.” 

Strengthening Litigation: As Annalisa Savaresi, a senior lecturer in environmental law at the University of Stirling, told Farand, this is a “really interesting” case, because it could “strengthen the basis for climate litigation to be brought on human rights grounds.” 

However, as Savaresi noted, the case may face one “big hurdle.” According to CHN, following the criteria of the ECHR, a case may only be brought “after all domestic remedies have been exhausted,” which means that the case must be taken to the “highest available court in all 33 countries.” 

Furthermore, the Global Legal Action Network is, according to Farand, “applying for an exception to the rule, on the basis pursuing 33 parallel cases is not practical, not least because of financial constraints.” Experts currently disagree as to whether the court will accept this exception. 

A Historical Precedent? 

This is not the first climate change case that has been brought by young people. Indeed, in 2015, youth activists filed Juliana v. U.S. against the US government. According to Our Children’s Trust, the case asserted that “through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” The case was eventually thrown out by a federal appeals court in 2020. 

As Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote, “reluctantly, we conclude that such relief is beyond our constitutional power.” This appeal, according to the New York Times, reversed an earlier ruling which would have let Juliana v. U.S. proceed. 


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