Swiss ‘climate seniors’ sue for tighter emissions laws

Over 2,000 elderly women claim their government’s insufficiently strict climate policies violate their human rights

More than 2,000 elderly Swiss women have partnered with Greenpeace to sue their government at the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that its failure to confront climate change has harmed their quality of life and put their survival at risk. The suit will be heard on Wednesday at the ECHR in Strasbourg. 

The KlimaSeniorinnen (Senior Women for Climate Protection) argue that by refusing to cut emissions in accordance with a model limiting global temperature increases to 1.5C (2.7F) this century, Switzerland has violated women’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights – specifically their right to life and right to respect for private and family life.  

The case cites scientific studies purporting to show climate change is responsible for 37% of warm-season heat-related deaths worldwide, with that figure put at 30% in Switzerland. Elderly women, with less ability to regulate their body temperatures, have one of the highest risks of death during heatwaves, according to the WHO. The plaintiffs, whose average age is 73, have marshaled their own medical records to back up the science. 

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The Swiss government has rejected the case locally and federally, arguing there is no proof the women are suffering specifically because of climate change caused by emissions policies. The authorities also argue that such policies are made by politicians, not the courts. Six years after initially filing, the KlimaSeniorinnen beefed up their legal team with two UK King’s Counsel lawyers and took their case to the ECHR, where it was referred to the Grand Chamber, reserved for the most important cases. 

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have denounced Switzerland’s plan to cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 as “woefully inadequate,” scorning the country’s creative carbon accounting, which involves paying poor countries to cut their emissions and applying the reductions in calculating Swiss national figures. The only solution, they argue, is for the court to impose extreme cuts within three years that would bring emissions levels to net-negative by 2030, relative to 1990 levels. 

The ECHR’s decision is considered final and will strongly influence any future climate cases brought in Strasbourg. Two more climate cases, similarly alleging climate-centric violations of human rights against the French and Portuguese governments, are set to be heard before the end of the year, at which point the ECHR will rule on all three.

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