European Court Says Switzerland Violated Elderly Citizen Rights Via Climate Inaction

The ruling can’t be appealed and sets a weighty legal precedent for climate litigation in the EU and beyond.

Photo of the Swiss Alps
Photo by Xavier von Erlach via Unsplash

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Switzerland’s flag is a big plus sign, but its climate change policies were just handed a big minus.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday in favor of 2,400 elderly Swiss women who’d taken their government to court over its climate change policies. The group, Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, argued that Switzerland had not done enough to combat climate change and prevent more frequent heat waves — a phenomenon that disproportionately impacts older people’s health. The ruling can’t be appealed and sets a weighty legal precedent for climate litigation in the EU and beyond.

Granny Thunberg

The ruling in favor of KlimaSeniorinnen doesn’t immediately dole out punishments for Switzerland, but it does mandate the country to revamp its climate policies, so its targets align with the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Dr. Birsha Ohdedar, a lecturer in environmental and climate change law at the SOAS University of London, told The Daily Upside it’s rare to see a case like this brought by older people. “While there are numerous instances where petitioners have been youth or children, cases involving senior citizens are less common, making this case particularly unique in that regard.” However, Ohdedar thinks the case could meaningfully impact a wide range of climate litigation, even when it’s brought by youngsters:

  • “Its success may set a precedent for similar cases elsewhere, mirroring the trend we’ve seen with youth petitioners emerging in various countries such as Europe, Australia, Pakistan, India, Colombia, and the USA,” Ohdedar said.
  • Ohdedar said the ruling also has the potential to influence other international courts. “Of particular interest is the Inter-American Court, which, like its European counterpart, deals with human rights issues,” said Ohdedar, as the Inter-American Court has been asked to issue an advisory opinion on how climate change and human rights intersect.

Professor Lisa Vanhala of University College London told The Daily Upside the case’s impact would be far-reaching. “We have seen a huge increase in the number of climate change legal cases around the world,” Vanhala said, adding, “What this judgment makes clear is that European states have obligations to protect the right to private and family life in the context of climate impacts.” Vanhala said six more pending ECHR cases will be directly colored by the ruling, and the decision will “begin to shape the way that national courts interpret human rights obligations in a warming world.”

The Price Tag: Now that European countries (the ECHR has 46 member states, including the Brexited UK) are vulnerable to litigious citizens, the question of the bill remains. A European lobby group called the European Round Table for Industry published a report Tuesday that said to reach its decarbonization goals by 2030, Europe will need about $800 billion plugged into its various industries from both “public and private capital.” That’s about $114 billion per year between now and then, give or take.