Balancing Climate Action and Individual Rights | A Win for All Generations

18 June 2024

A recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights marks a pivotal moment in recognising the intersection of climate action and individual rights.

Clíona Kimber SC and Cathy McFadden outline the potential implications for future climate litigation and policy-making, including Ireland’s role in this emerging development.

Alignment of Climate Action with Human Rights

April marked a historic moment as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a landmark decision in the case of Verein Klimaseniorinnen Schwer & Others v Switzerland, affirming the alignment of climate action with human rights.[1]

First case of its kind

The case, taken by  Verein Klimaseniorinnen (Association of Senior Women for Climate Protection), a group of 2,000 Swiss Women, is the first climate change case taken to the ECHR. Citing data from a report produced by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel in Climate Change, the women claimed that they are more vulnerable to the impact of climate change due to their age and gender, making them among those at the highest risk of illness and death from extreme temperatures during heat waves.

It is undeniable that anthropogenic climate change is to blame for the deadly heat waves that struck last year. From destructive wildfires to intense hurricanes and record-high temperatures, 2023 saw a string of unparalleled natural disasters across the globe including intense heatwaves that claimed the lives of 62,000 people in Europe alone. With the current global warming rates, a scorching summer like 2023 could become commonplace.

To minimise human impact on climate change, world leaders agreed to limit global warming to 1.5°C by the end of this century and mitigate the effect of increasing temperatures by reaching net zero globally by 2050. However, the Swiss government failed to meet past emission reduction targets and had not established a national carbon budget.

Klimaseniorinnen claimed that the Swiss government’s actions to address climate change had fallen short, leading to breaches, of their rights to life and their rights to respect for private and family life due to health hazards posed by rising temperatures. The case was brought by named individuals and by the association.

Intersection: climate action and human rights

The ECHR delved into the delicate intersection between climate action and individual rights and ruled that Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which refers to the right to a private and family life and home, “encompasses a right to effective protection by the State authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on lives, health, well-being and quality of life.” The ECHR emphasised the government’s obligation to take effective measures to mitigate climate change and protect individuals from its adverse effects. The ruling signifies a significant step in recognising climate change as a human rights issue and holding member states accountable for their environmental obligations.

The judgment raises profound questions about the role of courts in addressing systemic issues such as climate change and its implications for future legal battles and policymaking. It underscores the evolving understanding of human rights in the context of environmental degradation and reinforces the principle that environmental protection is inherently linked to the enjoyment of fundamental rights.

Setting precedents in climate litigation

As the ruling cannot be appealed, it sets a powerful precedent for future climate litigation and will strengthen other climate and environmental protection cases based on human rights pending in international courts.  There is now a new legal basis for grounding legal action, a new ground of liability.

However, the implications of this judgment extend beyond the courtroom. It signals to governments across Europe that they must pick up the pace in the reduction of emissions. There is a need to inject momentum into global efforts to tackle climate change. Seeing climate change as a human rights issue relevant to all citizens is central to bringing the issue home to everyone. The judgment will also support policymakers to integrate human rights and just transition considerations into climate action strategies.

Finally, by highlighting the disproportionate impact of climate change on vulnerable groups, the ECHR’s decision underscores the need for governments to adopt inclusive climate policies that prioritise the well-being of all individuals, and reveals the attendant challenges that climate change will lead to increased migration of vulnerable individuals to more prosperous and more liveable climates, like Ireland.

Yet, while the ECHR’s judgment is a watershed moment for climate litigation, it joins a broader trend of judicial engagement with environmental issues and the growing global movement of granting constitutional rights to a clean and healthy environment. From Bolivia to Uganda environmental rights have been enshrined within constitutions, signifying a commitment to protecting the environment and ensuring the well-being of their citizens.


How does Ireland fit into this significant emerging development?

Ireland was the second country in the world to face a climate lawsuit when the Climate Case Ireland action was taken by Friends of the Irish Environment and supporting organisations against the state’s inadequate climate policies. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the groups in 2020, and Ireland has since enacted climate legislation. However, the Irish Government took the decision to send a legal team to Strasbourg to oppose the KlimaSeniorinnen case. in opposing the finding of a European Convention right of citizens to effective protection  from climate change, Ireland’s position was in opposition to UN bodies, the International Commission of Jurists, and a host of environmental NGO’s.

Legal rights are important, in climate change as in all walks of life, and the European Court of Human Rights has taken a major step forward in putting a right to a safe climate on the legal map. The next step will be for practitioners to develop this right in domestic legal cases.

[1] I would like to thank Cathy McFadden, solicitor who co-wrote this article.

The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of The Bar of Ireland.

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