“What I felt was fear,” Claudia Duarte Agostinho says as she recalls the deadly heatwave and fires that swept through Portugal in 2017 and claimed the lives of more than one hundred people. “What I felt was fear,” she continues. “Because of the wildfires, I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety about the kind of future I’ll have.”
Six young Portuguese citizens, including Claudia, 24, her brother Martim, 20, and her sister Mariana, 11, are the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that was brought against 32 nations. These governments include all of the countries that are members of the EU, as well as the United Kingdom, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, and Turkey.
They accuse the countries of not taking adequate action about climate change and of failing to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases to an extent that would allow them to meet the target established by the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
At the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which is located in Strasbourg, this is the very first case of its kind to be brought before the court. In the event that it is effective, it may have repercussions for the participating governments that are legally enforceable. On Wednesday, there will be the first hearing that pertains to this matter.
The six claimants, ranging in age from 11 to 24, assert that the annual forest fires that have occurred in Portugal since 2017 are a direct outcome of global warming.
They assert that their basic human rights, including as the right to life, the right to privacy, the right to family life, and the right to be free from discrimination, are being violated as a result of the unwillingness of governments to take action against climate change.
They report that they have already been feeling major repercussions, particularly as a result of the severe temperatures that have prevailed in Portugal, which have forced them to spend more time indoors and limited their capacity to sleep, concentrate, or engage in physical activity. Some individuals also experience eco-anxiety in addition to allergic reactions and respiratory disorders such as asthma.
None of the young people applying for the job are interested in monetary remuneration.
“I want a green world without pollution, and I want to be healthy,” adds Mariana, who is 11 years old. “I’m in this situation because I’m genuinely anxious about what the future holds for me. I am concerned about the appearance of the neighborhood in which we will dwell.
In 2017, more than 50,000 acres (78 square miles, 202 square kilometers) of forest were devastated, and ashes from the wildfires were raining over their house miles away. According to Claudia, Mariana still feels afraid when she hears helicopters hovering above. This reminds her of the firemen who were fighting the fires at the time.
“I think it is really amazing for Mariana to get involved in this case, and to have such a conscience at her age,” Claudia says. “I think it is really amazing.”
“But in addition to that, it is really concerning to think about why she needs to care about these things. Instead of doing that, she could be hanging out with her pals and dancing to videos on TikTok.
It is anticipated that the attorneys who are representing the six young claimants will argue in court that the current practices of the 32 governments are setting the stage for a global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.
“It’s catastrophic heating,” says Gearóid o Cuinn, director of the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), an organization that is providing support to the applicants.
“The youth applicants involved in this case face intolerable temperature extremes that will have a negative impact on both their health and their wellbeing if the governments do not take immediate action,” “We are aware that the governments have the ability to do much more to stop this, but they have made the decision not to act,” he says.
A study that was published in the Lancet in 2021 revealed that children and young people all over the world were affected by climate anxiety and discontent with how governments were responding to climate change. This had an effect on the children and young people’s ability to go about their daily lives.
According to the findings of this study, which were derived from a poll that polled 10,000 children and young people between the ages of 16 and 25 from 10 nations around the world, a greater level of distress was connected with a perception that governments were not doing enough to address the climate catastrophe.
The governments, in their individual and combined answers to the case, say that the claimants have not properly demonstrated that they have suffered as a direct consequence of either climate change or the Portuguese wildfires.
They contend that there is no evidence to indicate that climate change creates an imminent risk to human life or health, and they also argue that the European Court of Human Rights does not have jurisdiction over climate policy since it is outside the scope of the court’s jurisdiction.
According to Gearóid o Cuinn, “these six young people from Portugal, who are ordinary individuals concerned about their future, will be facing 32 legal teams, hundreds of lawyers representing governments whose inaction is already harming them.” “These six young people from Portugal will be facing 32 legal teams, hundreds of lawyers representing governments whose inaction is already harming them.”
“So, this is a real David versus Goliath case that is seeking a structural change to put us on a much better track in terms of our future,” the author writes. “So, what we have here is an attempt to put us on a much better track.”
According to Dunja Mijatovic, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, who participated in the case as a third party intervenor, this case may have the potential to define how states approach human rights issues in conjunction with climate change.
“It is in fact a warning to member states, to international organizations, and to all of us, because we all have the opportunity to demonstrate that we really care, and that it’s not just words on paper. It is not as simple as checking a box and stating that we support this resolution or that one. According to what she said to the BBC, “it’s about changing our policies.”
The decision made by the ECHR would put all 32 states under an obligation under the law to take greater effort to address climate change by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases and moving away from the use of fossil fuels.
It would also have an impact on domestic courts, many of which have been looking to the ECHR for direction on how to handle matters involving climate change. A decision is anticipated within the next nine to eighteen months.
Claudia admits that she frequently questions whether or not she should have children in the future, primarily because she is concerned about the state of the world in which they would be living. “But winning this case would mean there would finally be hope,” she says. “But I’m not optimistic.”
“It would indicate that people are really listening to us and that they are as concerned as we are, and it would imply that the governments would really have to take steps to do something about it if this were to occur. It would be fantastic for everything, including relieving our worry and improving our futures. After then, a lot of other things could happen.”