Portuguese Youth Challenge 32 Governments Over Inadequate Climate Actions

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The haunting echo of an unusually severe heatwave, followed by wildfires, still reverberates in the psyche of twenty-four-year-old Claudia Duarte Agostinho. Alongside her siblings, Martim and Mariana, aged 20 and 11 respectively, Claudia forms part of a group of six Portuguese individuals embarking on an unprecedented legal battle against 32 governments, including EU member states, the UK, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, and Turkey.

Their allegations target these countries for their inadequate response to climate change and their failure to curtail greenhouse gas emissions sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement goal of confining global warming to 1.5C. Positioned at the forefront of this unique lawsuit is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. If the claimants are successful, the case could lead to legally binding repercussions for the governments involved, with the first court hearing scheduled on Wednesday.

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Swept by an escalating incidence of forest fires since 2017, Portugal is becoming a focal point in the climate change discourse. The group of young claimants, aged from 11 to 24, contends that these fires can be traced back to global warming. They argue that their fundamental human rights, including the right to life, privacy, family life, and freedom from discrimination, are in jeopardy due to the unresponsiveness of governments towards climate change dynamics.

The legal team handling their case is expected to construct an argument centered on the premise that policies currently adopted by the 32 governments are steering the world towards a 3 degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century—an outcome they emphatically deem to be catastrophic.

Despite relentless climatic changes triggering an array of anxieties, respiratory problems and allergies, these young crusaders are not seeking monetary recompense—only the pledge for meaningful action. According to a 2021 study by The Lancet, feelings of climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with governmental responses are common among children and young people across the globe.

However, the governments involved counter that the claimants have not established a direct link between their sustained injuries and climate change or Portuguese wildfires. In response, Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of Global Legal Action Network, articulated, “This is a real David vs Goliath case that is seeking a structural change.”

In the event of the claimants emerging victorious, the ECHR ruling would compel all 32 governments to intensify their climate efforts by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out fossil fuels. The decision would also be a benchmark for domestic courts seeking climate change-related guidance from the ECHR, with a verdict anticipated within nine to eighteen months.

For Claudia, winning this lawsuit encapsulates more than just a legal victory—it signifies the inception of hope. A hope nurtured by people finally recognizing and sharing their concerns, compelling governments to take substantial measures in earnest. As she eloquently expressed it, “A lot of things can follow after that.”