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The Children Taking Governments to Court

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

Emily Davies reports on how young people globally are taking those in power to Court over climate change – and winning.

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Since 1990, over 1,300 climate change-related lawsuits have been filed globally with varying degrees of success. The number of these cases doubled between 2017 and 2020, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme.

Many of these are younger people accusing the government of not doing enough to combat global warming, of contributing to climate change, and failing to take action to protect them from the dangers of a heated planet.

Human Rights

One of many arguments the people taking the government to Court are making is that — in failing to combat climate change — they are violating human rights.

One of the more prominent cases that employ this argument involved 25-year-old activist Luisa Neubauer, an environmentalist central to the Fridays for Future movement in Germany. While the Guardian and many other news outlets have named her “the German Greta”, she has rejected this comparison, saying:

“We’re building a mass-movement and reaching out quite far in our methods of mobilising and gaining attention. What Greta does is incredibly inspiring but actually relatively far from that.”

Neubauer took the German government to Court in 2019 and won, with the court ruling that Germany’s climate change laws are lacking and violate vital freedoms of young people. This is because, by staving off significant climate change action, the burden of managing the effects of global warming will be on today’s younger generations.

The Court also ruled that the law was too lacking in detail about how Germany was going to cut CO2 emissions after 2030 – when the current targets should be met. According to the BBC, Neubauer described the ruling as a “huge win for the climate movement”.

Youth Discrimination: The Agostinho Case

Climate change being a violation of human rights isn’t the only argument being taken to Court – there is also the argument of youth discrimination. This falls along a similar line to the Neubauer case – with the burden of dealing with global warming falling on future generations.

The case of youth discrimination was brought to Court by six Portuguese children and younger people with the support of the Global Legal Action Network. They pointed out the obligations of 33 Member States of the Council of Europe under Articles 2, 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights:

  • Article 2: the right to life

  • Article 8: the right to have a private and family life

  • Article 14: prohibition of discrimination (youth discrimination in this case)

Perhaps more surprisingly, however, the Court also invoked Article 3 alongside the other violations:

  • Article 3: the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment

The case was fast-tracked, with the 33 European States being obligated to give information on how they will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. A main complaint of the case is that the states must take responsibility for emissions relating to fossil fuels which they export, the production of imported goods, and the overseas activities of multinationals within their jurisdictions.

Juliana vs United States

Another prominent climate change case in the U.S. has been ongoing since 2015. 21 young people accused the U.S. government of aggravating climate change and subsequently violating constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.

In January 2020, the case was dismissed because the plaintiffs (those who brought the case to Court) lacked substantial grounds for suing. This month, a settlement conference will be held. Many cases like this one are held around an area of environmental law called “atmospheric trust litigation”, which surrounds the public trust doctrine and international responsibility relating to the natural resources of the planet.

While taking to the streets to protest inactivity to prevent climate change and the contributions of governments, banks, and polluting industries is great for raising awareness and pressuring those in power to do better, these cases are creating case law for environmental accountability. It shows that there are many ways to help combat global warming – from activism on the streets to creating new case law to helping implement clean power sources.


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