Swiss Climate Inaction Violates Human Rights, European Court Rules

Published Apr 9, 2024

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) today ruled that the Swiss government violated human rights by failing to take action to curb its heat-trapping emissions. Under Article 8 in the European Convention of Human Rights, the case has set precedent for the legal obligation of all European states to protect the right to private and family life in the context of climate harms.

The court also ruled two similar cases brought by six Portuguese youth and a French mayor as inadmissible. This was based on procedural issues, not the merits of the cases. The ECHR rejects approximately 90% of all cases brought before it as inadmissible.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) submitted an amicus brief in support of the six youth plaintiffs from Portugal in collaboration with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Greenpeace International. Attribution science and research investigations into climate action obstruction have provided robust evidence for climate-related legal cases around the world and have greatly enhanced understanding around the connections between human activities, climate change and resulting impacts. UCS has been a leader in source attribution research, using science to establish direct causal links between carbon dioxide emissions attributable to specific sources and climate impacts such as surface temperature rise, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and wildfires.

Below is a statement by Dr. Delta Merner, the lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at UCS.

“In a groundbreaking decision, the European Court of Human Rights has unequivocally stated that inadequate government action on climate change constitutes a violation of human rights, acknowledging for the first time that countries have an obligation under international law to combat climate change. This ruling highlights the undeniable link between government climate policies and the fundamental rights to life and family. With extreme weather events like heatwaves becoming more frequent and intense due to fossil fuel exacerbated climate change, this landmark judgment sends a clear message: governments must strengthen their efforts to combat climate change, not just as a matter of environmental policy, but as a crucial aspect of protecting human rights. This case sets a precedent for future climate litigation, reinforcing the important role of science in shaping legal standards and government accountability in the fight against climate change.

“On the other hand, some communities that have been fighting this legal battle for years will walk away today without justice. The court’s mixed decisions underscore how difficult it can be for impacted communities to demonstrate in a legal setting what science has clearly shown for decades: the direct connection between heat-trapping emissions, climate change, and the extreme weather impacts they are experiencing such as heatwaves and wildfires. The uphill battle for climate accountability persists as vulnerable communities bravely challenge entrenched political, economic, and legal systems that have historically prioritized the fossil fuel industry and private interests. The courts still have a critical role to play in holding high emitting entities accountable for their role in the climate crisis, helping to address historical responsibility for the release of heat-trapping emissions resulting in climate injustice, and protecting human rights for current and future generations. The scientific community should take this as a call to step up and provide more scientific expertise and research to communities who are seeking justice through the courts.”

For more information, read Dr. Merner’s blogpost about the cases here.

The ECHR decisions are the first of several anticipated rulings from international courts, including the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights (IACHR).