regular-article-logo Wednesday, 22 May 2024

Law for all seasons: Editorial on courts articulating link between human rights and governmental failure to act against global warming

Courts too have been trying to drive govts to meet their emission targets; some govts themselves have sued oil and gas corporations for playing down the dangers of fossil fuels

The Editorial Board Published 13.04.24, 06:42 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File Photo

Conventions and commitments were not enough, so courts have stepped in. In a judgment that has international resonance, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that, by not doing enough to stop climate change, the government of Switzerland has violated its citizens’ rights according to the European Convention on Human Rights. With a court straddling multiple countries associating human rights with climate change mitigation, the Swiss government’s argument that the human rights law does not apply to global warming can no longer stand. The judgment will hang over all governments which have not met their greenhouse emission targets, thus endangering, initially, the right to health. The human rights court was responding to a petition from a group of senior women, who argued that the Swiss government had left them vulnerable to increasing heat by not taking steps to reduce global warming; it had failed to take care of them in their later years.

Of two other cases before the human rights court which were rejected for different reasons, one referred to a French town on the English Channel endangered by rising water levels. The French government’s failure to address climate change in this case allegedly violated the citizens’ right to life. Although the case was quashed, all three petitions show the increasing tendency of individuals and groups to petition courts in terms of human rights violations caused by their governments’ reluctance to institute measures to address climate change and protect their peoples from its effects. Courts too, such as some in the United States of America, have been trying to drive governments to meet their emission targets; some governments themselves have sued oil and gas corporations for playing down the dangers of fossil fuels.


The European Court’s judgment brings human rights to the centre of climate change issues. The crisis is already acute: according to Unicef, one billion children are at extremely high risk from weather events and changes, and almost every child is exposed to some form of climate or environmental crisis. This is exacerbated by the scarcity of water, sanitation and healthcare. A recent judgment of the Indian Supreme Court took this into account when it ruled that the right to be protected from the adverse effects of climate change was part of the Indian citizens’ constitutional rights to life and to equality. The need for equality alluded to the fact that underprivileged households suffer most in extreme weather events such as cyclones, floods and drought. So it was the State’s duty to prevent overall harm and provide care to citizens, mitigate climate change and ensure that people could manage the climate crisis. The approach was one of balance: there should be a dynamic interplay of the protection of threatened species and human rights with climate change needs such as developing solar energy. Courts and people in different places are pushing governments towards corrective action; their sense of urgency is obviously far greater than that of politicians.

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