Swiss Decision Poised to Break the Dam Holding Climate Litigation Back

Social Justice Policy Brief #162 | By: Devyne Byrd | May 01, 2024
Featured Photo: www.vox.com/world-politics

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The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Switzerland violated human rights by failing to protect its citizens from the negative effects of climate change. The case was brought by four Swiss women on behalf of 2,000 older women who complained of health problems that were being exacerbated during the heat waves caused by climate change. The ruling agreed, stating that the Swiss Confederation had duties under the Convention to protect its citizens from climate change including concerns about national greenhouse gases, emissions limitations, and carbon.

There are reasonable concerns that the Court does not have the power to enforce the verdict; however, the ruling sets a clear precedent that in the Council of Europe, countries have an affirmative duty to address climate issues. Experts also expect it to lead to similar cases before international courts as the climate crisis continues and climate litigation remains a prominent method for forcing governments into action.

Similar climate litigation is pending in the United States as Juliana v. United States continues on its path to the Supreme Court. The suit was first filed in 2015 by 21 young Americans, asserting that the U.S. government had violated younger generations’ constitutional rights through their actions that were causing climate change. However, the Department of Justice has significantly postponed the case from being heard through filing motions to delay and dismiss. The plaintiffs are now awaiting a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after nine years.

On the state level, the District Court of Montana issued the historic ruling in Held v. State that the State of Montana violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights by supporting a fossil fuel-driven energy system that contributed to climate change. The Court held that the state of Montana violated the youth’s constitutional rights, including their rights to equal protection, dignity, liberty, health and safety, and public trust, which are all based on their right to a clean and healthful environment. The court also invalidated state laws that promoted fossil fuels and required the State to ignore the climate change the fossil fuel-driven laws were causing. The case is currently preparing to be heard before the Montana Supreme Court following the defendant’s appeal, but the victory was momentous as one of the first U.S. states to recognize governments are liable to their citizens for environmental harm.

As the climate crisis worsens, climate litigation remains a powerful tool citizens are using to force their governments into action. The European Court of Human Rights decision will likely spur similar cases throughout Europe and on a global scale and set the precedent that governments can be held accountable for not taking affirmative actions to protect their citizens from climate change.

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