Climate Action

Is climate inaction a human rights violation?

Anne Mahrer, co-president of the Senior Women for Climate Protection, stands in front of supporters outside the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France March 29, 2023. REUTERS/Emma Farge

A group of Swiss women have won a landmark climate victory at the European Court of Human Rights. Image: REUTERS/Emma Farge

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum Geneva
Minji Sung
Data Visuals and Content Specialist, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum
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  • The European Court of Human Rights has answered this question with a clear ‘yes.’
  • It ruled that Switzerland failed to act ‘in time and in an appropriate way’ to protect people from climate change impacts.
  • The case is just one of a growing number of human rights-related climate cases that have been filed.

“There had been a violation of the right to respect for private and family life.”

So said the European Court of Human Rights, as it handed down a ruling on Tuesday in favor of a group of women alleging the Swiss government failed to protect their health amid worsening climate change-related heatwaves.

The “Swiss grandmothers” (minimum age: 64) had initially sailed up the Rhine in 2020 to deliver their complaint to the Strasbourg-based court – after being dismissed by the legal system in their own country.

That system failed to “take into consideration the compelling scientific evidence concerning climate change,” or to take the case the women brought before it “seriously,” the ECHR said.

Now, effects of Tuesday’s decision could trickle down to dozens of countries in Europe. One expert described its impact as “huge.”

It may yet prove to be a decisive moment for human rights-based climate litigation, which has been steadily gaining momentum in recent years. It will almost certainly put the many countries failing to hit their climate targets on notice.

Human rights-based climate litigation is on the rise.
Human rights-based climate litigation is on the rise. Image: World Economic Forum

Switzerland has not complied with its duties under the European Convention on Human Rights related to climate change, the ECHR said – there are “critical gaps” in domestic regulation, coupled with a failure to achieve greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

“The Swiss authorities had not acted in time and in an appropriate way,” the court said.

The ruling comes as impacts of the climate crisis mount.

Global temperatures last year smashed the previous record by a huge margin, and seem poised to start breaching a critical level beyond which conditions are expected to become increasingly catastrophic.

Scientists have pegged the odds of another heat record this year at one in three.

Still, not all human rights-based climate litigation has succeeded.

Two other related cases brought before the ECHR were dismissed on Tuesday, on procedural grounds.

Rights-based climate litigation: a mixed track record

One of those cases had been brought by a group of young people from Portugal, after wildfires intensified by a warming climate made that country, which constitutes about 2% of European Union territory, home to more than half of the bloc’s total burned area.

They alleged that those fires – and the health risks and crippling anxiety that come with them – were the result of a failure to act on climate change in Portugal and 32 other countries. The ECHR ruled on Tuesday that their case was inadmissible, because they hadn't first pursued it in their native Portugal.

The UN Human Rights Office clearly states that climate change threatens the enjoyment of life, food, and health.

But following through on legal action compelling respect for those rights can be a lengthy process.

Still, Clémentine Baldon, an attorney who's represented plaintiffs in climate litigation, had predicted to the World Economic Forum in 2022 that the number of human rights-related claims would “continue to increase” – particularly if the ECHR were to rule in favor of plaintiffs like the “Swiss grandmothers.”

(Baldon represented a plaintiff in the “Case of the Century” in France, which held that country’s government liable in 2021 for missing its climate goals).

Temperatures have been rising as a result of climate change.
Temperatures have been rising as a result of climate change. Image: World Economic Forum

According to the Global Climate Change Litigation database, 146 human rights-based cases have been brought against governments outside of the US to date (claims within the US are categorized differently).

Many of those cases relate to environmental health, while others have been tied to climate migration, or have been filed on behalf of Indigenous groups.

In 2022, some of Baldon’s clients filed a complaint with the ECHR over a 1990s-era treaty requiring governments to compensate energy companies and investors if public policies cut into their profits – including policies designed to combat climate change.

On Tuesday, one of the Swiss women victorious at the ECHR seemed incredulous. "We keep asking our lawyers, 'Is that right?'," she said.

"And they tell us: 'It's the most you could have had. The biggest victory possible.'"

More reading on climate litigation, human rights, and energy policy

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Human rights-based climate lawsuits are no longer just focusing on matters like the right to life, according to this piece, and instead are using research into psychological impacts to argue government inaction amounts to inhuman treatment. (Clean Energy Wire)
  • “Climate litigation takes its first steps in China.” According to this piece, the country’s highest court recently issued guidance on climate change-related cases. (Eco-Business)
  • Most investor-state legal cases concerning fossil fuels have been decided in favour of the private sector, according to this piece, and the way damages are calculated leads to “huge awards.” (Eco-Business)
  • The “trickle-up effect” – with governments falling short on pledges and companies accused of greenwashing, human rights-based climate litigation is increasingly important for accountability, according to this analysis. (Chatham House)
  • Humans aren’t the only victims of climate change. According to this research, even temporarily overshooting the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 2°C would mean “waves of irreversible extinctions and lasting damage to tens of thousands of species.” (The Conversation)
  • The science of “weather event attribution” is starting to show the true costs and impacts of climate change, according to this study, and the best assessments can prove valuable for litigation efforts. (Science Daily)
  • Denying people access to tasty hot sauce may not be a human rights violation, but it gets their attention. According to this piece, climate change-related drought may have been the cause of a sriracha sauce shortage. (Smithsonian Magazine)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Human Rights, Climate Change and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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