Claudia Duarte Agostinho, a 24-year-old ER nurse from western Portugal, gets stressed thinking about the reality of climate change.
“Right now … the big impact that it’s having on my life is the anxiety it gives me daily,” she says.
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She is leading a group of six young people in a landmark lawsuit against 32 countries, including all EU member states, Norway, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Russia and Turkey. It will be heard at the European Court of Human Rights later this month.
The group, the youngest member of whom is just 11, will argue that government inaction on climate change discriminates against young people and poses a tangible risk to their lives and health.
It is the first time that so many countries have had to defend themselves in front of any court in the world.
“This is truly a David and Goliath case,” says Dr Gearoid O Cuinn, director of the Global Legal Action Network, which is supporting the lawsuit. “It is unprecedented in its scale and in its consequences,” he adds.
The case was sparked by a series of forest fires in Portugal in 2017, which killed more than 100 people and were worsened by climate change.
Andre Oliveira, who was just nine years old at the time, describes it as a “terrifying experience”.
He says smoke from the fires aggravated his asthma, while repeated periods of intense heat have since made it hard to sleep and concentrate on studying for his exams. They even stop him from going outside and playing basketball with his friends.
It is not just their physical health that is affected. Andre’s sister, 18-year-old Sofia, says anxiety about the climate crisis is disturbing her day-to-day life.
“I see what is happening and I feel on my skin a dread,” she says.
This July was the hottest month on record, and the summer saw heatwaves across Europe.
“How could we not be scared? Fear is, I think, a totally normal response to what we’re witnessing, and also to the failure of the governments to act,” says Andre, who is now 15.
“We felt that couldn’t last much longer so we knew we had to do something,” he adds.
In court, the group’s legal team will argue that the worsening climate crisis is breaching their rights to life, privacy and family life, to be free from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, and to be free from discrimination on grounds of their age.
To address this, they want the 32 governments to set and meet much higher targets for cutting emissions.
They can do this, they say, by cutting the production and export of fossil fuels, reducing emissions from overseas consumption and forcing companies based in their territories to clean up their global supply chains.
There are some significant hurdles to overcome, particularly the requirement to have exhausted all legal avenues in the countries they are accusing of breaching their rights.
The legal team says this is impractical in their case and argues it should be lifted due to the urgency of the climate crisis.
The 32 governments, meanwhile, are expected to argue that they are already doing all they can to cut emissions and that they only have obligations to people living in their own territories.
The landmark case will be heard before a panel of 17 judges in Strasbourg, France, which earlier this year presided over its first climate lawsuit.
In March, a group of older Swiss women accused Switzerland of breaching their human rights by failing to do enough to cut national emissions. They also argued that they were particularly vulnerable to climate change due to their age.
During the same hearing, a former French politician claimed his rights too were affected.
The European Court of Human Rights has said it wants to hear all three of these initial cases before it makes a final decision.
“The Duarte Agostinho case is a truly historic opportunity for one of the world’s most influential courts to clarify what human rights law requires states to do on climate to protect present and future generations,” says Sebastien Duyck, human rights and climate campaign manager for the Center for International Environmental Law.
“And to make those states face up to the significant gap between what their climate policies pledge and what science requires to avoid further climate-induced harm,” he adds.
Prepared for a fight
Although going to court is likely to be an intimidating experience, the six Portuguese youths are prepared for a fight.
The second oldest of the plaintiffs, Catarina Mota, 23, says she is glad that the hearing is finally going to happen.
“We’ve been working on this case since 2017, and since we began we have felt the impacts of the climate crisis getting worse and worse. Governments around the world have the power to stop this and Europe’s governments are choosing not to do their part,” Mota says.
And they will not be alone; some of the older Swiss women who fought the first case have promised to attend.
While the case is personal, the group is adamant that it also represents something much bigger.
“It’s about not only us … but all of society,” says Sofia.