LONDON – Six Portuguese children and young adults on Monday removed a major legal hurdle in a climate lawsuit filed against 33 European countries, claiming the government’s climate inaction threatened their future.
Applicants between the ages of 8 and 21 want European governments to step up their efforts to curb planetary heating emissions, arguing that failure to do so will jeopardize their well-being.
The European Court of Human Rights said on Monday it would shed light on climate change lawsuits against countries such as Germany, France, the UK and Greece. The case now moves to the next stage, where all defendant countries will be forced to respond to the complaint. The 33 countries must respond by the end of February, unless a “friendly agreement” can be reached beforehand.
Candidates include 12-year-old André Oliveira, who lives with his family in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, which has suffered from extreme heat in recent years.
“We only have one planet, and I really like it. … We have no other place to go,” he told NBC News. “Climate change is an issue that causes me a lot of anxiety and fear because I don’t know if my generation will have the same life as this generation.”
André said the purpose of the lawsuit was to “encourage countries to do better and do the right thing,” and said that even if it failed, there are others like him who “try.”
André’s big sister, 15-year-old Sofia Oliveira, was a partner in the European lawsuit, and teen activist Greta Thunberg, British television scientist David Attenborough, was cited as her main inspirations. Sofia said her friends at the school and dance club were proud to have represented them in court.
“More and more people are supporting us,” she said. “There is hope. … Together we are strong and able to change.”
The majority of cases brought before the Strasbourg-based court in France do not reach this stage, so the court’s decision is a significant step towards a potential landmark ruling on climate change, according to the Global Legal Action Network or the non-profit organization GLAN. which supports applicants in their case.
“The latest development is extremely significant,” said Gerry Liston, GLAN’s legal officer. He added, however, that the lawsuits were part of a multifaceted battle to limit global carbon emissions.
“Climate change as a local movement is strengthening climate change lawsuits,” he told NBC News before the decision. “Ultimately, it’s about putting pressure on every possible point of pressure … given the scale of the existential crisis we’re facing.”
Youth applicants have so far raised about $ 17,000 to cover legal costs through community funding.
The other four young applicants live in Leiria, Portugal, which was hit hardest by forest fires in 2017. Similar deadly fires destroyed the west coast of the United States this year.
On November 4, the day after the U.S. election, the country officially left the landmark Paris Agreement, the world’s most important attempt to fight climate change. President Donald Trump announced his withdrawal from the 2015 agreement six months later during his presidency, impressing American allies and climate activists.
President-elect Joe Biden promised in November that recommends the United States again and appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as the President’s Special Envoy for Climate Change.
In recent years, thousands of climate lawsuits have been filed worldwide against governments and companies that have yielded mixed results.
In December, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled in favor of a climate change campaign group demanding that the Dutch government take faster action to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, in the United States in January, a court dismissed a case filed by 21 young people accusing the government of violating their rights to life and liberty.
Download the NBC News app for the latest news and politics
A year ago, Thunberg and 15 other young petitioners filed a lawsuit in a United Nations committee alleging that five countries that are major emitters of greenhouse gases are undermining children’s rights. The case is still under investigation.
The European Court of Justice is weeks ahead of the process when it decides on the European Union’s 2030 emissions target. According to the bloc, the goal is to become climate neutral by 2050.
If the case is ultimately successful, it could set an influential precedent for national courts and legally oblige defendant countries to eliminate emission reductions under GLAN.
The ongoing coronavirus epidemic “reminded us of our vulnerability,” Liston said.
“The coronavirus just wakes us up to see how things can change very suddenly and that we are by no means invincible as a species.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation contributed to this report.