A Group of Women Took Switzerland to Court Over Climate Inaction—and Won

Four years ago, a group of women, aged 64 and up, filed a lawsuit before Europe’s top human rights court against Switzerland for violating their rights by not protecting them from the health impacts of climate change. 

On Tuesday, the court decided in their favor, marking the first time an international court has ruled on governments’ legal obligations regarding climate change.

“It is clear that future generations are likely to bear an increasingly severe burden of the consequences of present failures and omissions to combat climate change,” said Siofra O’Leary, president of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, following the verdict, which cannot be appealed. 

During the trial, the women, part of the group Senior Women for Climate Protection (KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz), zeroed in on the devastating heat waves that have permeated Europe in recent years, which have left older individuals in particular with an outsized risk of heat stress. This landmark ruling is the latest in a wave of court cases around the world targeting both governments and businesses to hold them accountable for their role in climate change—and their obligations to address it. 

Swiss Victory: Under the European Convention on Human Rights, all people are legally guaranteed the “effective protection by the state authorities from the serious adverse effects of climate change on their lives, health, well-being and quality of life.” 

Switzerland failed to ensure this protection by not acting swiftly to combat climate change, according to the court. More specifically, the country did not fulfill its pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels; instead, Switzerland reduced emissions by around just 11 percent between 2013 and 2020, The New York Times reports

Additionally, the European country has not set a national carbon budget, which sets a cap on how much carbon dioxide can be emitted by industry, homes and the economy. In their ruling, the court left Switzerland to determine its own measures to remedy this, under supervision of a committee of government representatives from member states. 

“The European Court of Human Rights stopped short of ordering the Swiss government to take any specific action, underscoring that relief from the Swiss government ‘necessarily depends on democratic decision-making’ to enact the laws necessary to impose such a remedy,” Richard Lazarus, a professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in environmental and natural resources law, told the Associated Press.

Inside Scoop: Though the European Court of Human Rights saw and rejected two other climate-related cases on various grounds around the same time, the Swiss case could have broader implications for governments around the world. I asked my colleague Katie Surma, who writes about international environmental law and justice, what she thinks some of those ripple effects could be.

In agreeing with the Swiss women, the Strasbourg court set two major precedents: it affirmed the science of climate change and confirmed that governments have human rights obligations when it comes to addressing climate change.

The ruling will have far reaching impacts. Most directly, it is binding on all European countries, meaning that if those nations don’t align their climate plans with the science-based targets of the Paris Agreement, they could face litigation in national and international courts.

Outside of Europe, other courts, both national and international, are likely to be influenced by the opinion. Increasingly, plaintiffs are making arguments based in human rights law to push governments to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Among the upcoming cases to watch are three pending Advisory Opinions from different international courts—the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea; the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; and the International Court of Justice—that deal with variations of the question: what are governments’ obligations with regard to climate change?

Corporate Criminals? Climate court cases have more than doubled since 2017, according to the United Nations. One of the most common targets in these cases are the businesses contributing the most to global warming: fossil fuel companies. 

For example, my colleague Kiley Bense recently covered a case in which Bucks County in Pennsylvania filed a suit at the end of March against several oil and gas companies—including BP, Chevron and more—for the role they played in accelerating climate change, and misleading the public about that role. They pointed to the impacts of a climate-fueled storm that hit the region in 2023. The rain and flooding from this event killed seven people in the area and caused millions of dollars in damage to public infrastructure.  

In this case, the plaintiffs are seeking to hold the companies “financially accountable.” But some legal experts have recently been arguing that fossil fuel companies could be charged with homicide in some cases. However, this tactic is still outside the mainstream and unlikely to be pursued at a large scale any time soon, other law experts say. 

“If you engage in conduct that is a substantial contributor to someone’s death, and you do it with a culpable mental state, that’s homicide,” Donald Braman, an associate professor at George Washington University Law School, told my colleague Nicholas Kusnetz in an interview.

The fossil fuel industry has pushed to have all types of climate litigation tried in federal rather than state court because it is seen by defense attorneys as more likely to deliver a positive outcome for the company. However, in 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear five appeals by oil companies advocating for trials at a federal level, reported the Guardian

Most recently, the Hawaii Supreme Court allowed a climate lawsuit in Honolulu to move forward at the state level, but the defendants recently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to change this, according to Reuters

More Top Climate News

Some scientists have lauded the potential of direct air carbon capture, but these technologies could cost hundreds of billions of dollars in government investments to reach a meaningful scale, according to a new report by research firm the Rhodium Group. 

Currently, the U.S. federal government spends around $1 billion a year on carbon removal research and development, reports Heatmap. But that amount is going to have to multiply by a magnitude of 100 to reach the level necessary to effectively combat climate change, the report says. Some scientists argue that money should instead be allocated toward other strategies. 

“It is premature to be scaling up any of these [technologies]. These need a lot more study,” Joseph Romm, senior research fellow at the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media, told the Verge. “The two most urgent things that we have to do now, are stopping deforestation and stopping putting more CO2 into the air.” 

Meanwhile, your morning caffeine fix could soon be made out of date seeds and chickpeas, as startups seek alternatives to traditional coffee, which is increasingly threatened by climate change, writes L.V. Anderson for Grist. Rising temperatures are expected to cut coffee-growing regions by more than half by 2050, which could shrink supply while demand is at a record high worldwide. While coffee’s future remains uncertain, Anderson offers reviews of the sustainable alternative options being offered in coffee shops around New York. 

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