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Young activists take 33 countries to court in bid to step up climate change fight

"We see this case as buttressing the Paris agreement," said Gerry Liston, a legal officer with Global Legal Action Network which is supporting the case.
Members of the emergency services try to extinguish a wildfire near Cardigos village, in central Portugal in July 2019.Sergio Azenha / AP

LISBON, Portugal — Six young activists launched a European human rights case against 33 countries in the latest legal effort to force governments to step up their fight against climate change.

The group filed a claim Thursday asking the European Court of Human Rights to hold the countries accountable for their allegedly inadequate efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The Portuguese activists argue that failures to address climate change constitute a threat to their physical and mental well-being, violating their rights to life and respect for their families.

They are backed by the Global Legal Action Network, a international nonprofit organization that challenges human rights violations, and a team of five London lawyers. The countries named in the complaint include the 27 member nations of the European Union plus the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

The six Portuguese range in age between 12 and 21. Four of them live in central Portugal, where wildfires blamed in part on climate change killed more than 100 people in 2017. The two others live in Lisbon, an Atlantic coastal city threatened by rising sea levels.

If the activists win their case at the court in Strasbourg, France, the countries would be legally bound to cut emissions in line with the requirements of the 2015 Paris climate accord. They would also have to address their role in overseas emissions, including by their multinational companies.

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"We see this case as buttressing the Paris agreement," Gerry Liston, a Global Legal Action Network legal officer, said during an online news conference.

Scientists say the man-made emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide must end by 2050 at the latest to avoid pushing global temperatures beyond the increase threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) set out in the Paris climate accord.

The Portuguese case echoes one brought in the Netherlands by the environmental group Urgenda on behalf of 900 Dutch citizens concerned about government inaction on climate change.

Those plaintiffs argued that protection from the potentially devastating effects of climate change was a human right and that the government has a duty to protect its citizens. In December, the Supreme Court in The Hague ruled in their favor.

Also, 16 children, including teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, last year filed a complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to protest lack of government action on the climate crisis.