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Portuguese youngsters clear major hurdle in European climate lawsuit

"We only have one planet and I like it very much. ... We have no other place to go," said André Oliveira, 12.
Inage: Portugal climate protest
Portuguese students joined the international movement Fridays for Future in Lisbon to protest against climate change in September.Hugo Amaral / Sopa Images / Sipa USA via AP

LONDON — Six Portuguese children and young adults cleared a major legal hurdle on Monday in a climate litigation case they brought against 33 European countries, claiming government climate inaction jeopardized their futures.

The applicants, aged between 8 and 21, want European governments to ramp up their efforts to curb planet-heating emissions, arguing that failure to do so threatens their well-being.

The European Court of Human Rights on Monday said it would greenlight their climate lawsuit against countries including Germany, France, the U.K. and Greece. The case will now proceed to the next stage, where each defendant country will be compelled to respond to the complaint. The 33 countries have until the end of February to respond, unless a "friendly settlement" is reached before then.

Firefighters battle a fire outside the village of Roqueiro, near Oleiros, Portugal, in September.Sergio Azenha / AP file

Among the applicants is 12-year-old André Oliveira, who lives with his family in Portugal's capital, Lisbon, which has suffered extreme heat in recent years.

"We only have one planet and I like it very much. ... We have no other place to go," he told NBC News. "Climate change is a matter that brings me much anxiety and fear, because I don't know if my generation is going to have the same life that this generation had."

André said the lawsuit was about encouraging "countries to do better and to act correctly" and said even if it failed, there were others like him "who will try."

André's big sister, Sofia Oliveira, 15, is a fellow applicant in the European lawsuit and cited teen climate activist Greta Thunberg along with British television naturalist David Attenborough as her major inspirations. Sofia said her friends at school and at her dance club were proud of her for representing them before the courts.

"More and more people are supporting us," she said. "There is hope. ... Together we are strong and can make the difference."

The majority of cases filed with the court based in Strasbourg, France, fail to reach this stage, making the court's decision a major step toward a potential landmark judgment on climate change, according to the Global Legal Action Network, or GLAN, a nonprofit, which is supporting the applicants in their case.

"The latest development is extremely significant," said Gerry Liston, a legal officer at GLAN. He added, however, that the litigation was one part of a multifaceted battle to limit global carbon emissions.

"The climate movement as a grassroots movement reinforces the climate litigation," he told NBC News ahead of the decision. "Ultimately, it's about putting pressure on every possible pressure point ... given the extent of the existential crisis that we face."

The youth-applicants have so far raised about $17,000 to cover legal fees through crowdfunding.

The other four young applicants live in Portugal's Leiria area, which was among the worst hit by forest fires in 2017. Similar deadly fires have ravaged parts of the United States' West Coast this year.

On Nov. 4, the day after the U.S. election, the country officially left the landmark Paris accord, the world's foremost attempt to fight climate change. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal from the 2015 agreement six months into his presidency, stunning American allies and climate activists.

Demonstrators take part in a global climate protest in Lisbon on Sept. 25.Armando Franca / AP file

President-elect Joe Biden promised in November to recommit the U.S. to the accord and appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as his special presidential envoy for climate.

Thousands of climate lawsuits have been filed against governments and companies worldwide in the past few years, producing mixed results.

In December, the Netherlands' Supreme Court ruled in favor of a climate campaign group's demand that the Dutch government move faster to cut carbon emissions. Meanwhile, in the U.S. in January a court dismissed a case brought by 21 young people who accused the government of infringing their rights to life and liberty.

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A year ago, Thunberg and 15 other young petitioners filed a lawsuit with a United Nations committee, claiming five countries that are substantial emitters of greenhouse gases were undermining children's rights. The case is still under consideration.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg takes part in the 'Europe Climate Strike' rally in Brussels in March.Johanna Geron / Reuters

The European court's decision to proceed comes weeks ahead of a European Union decision on its 2030 emissions target. The bloc has said it aims to become climate-neutral by 2050.

If the case is ultimately successful, it could set an influential precedent for national courts and potentially legally bind the defendant countries to ramp up emissions cuts, according to GLAN.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has served as a "reminder of our vulnerability," Liston said.

"The coronavirus is just a wake-up call about how things can change very suddenly, and that we are not by any means invincible as a species."

The Thomson Reuters Foundation contributed to this report.