How 2,000 elderly Swiss women won a landmark climate case

A group of older women and younger children hold triangular flags in support of climate justice.
Protesters hold pennants during a rally before the European Court of Human Rights decides in three separate cases whether states are doing enough in the face of global warming, in Strasbourg, France, on April 9, 2024. | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

The European Court of Human Rights ruled Switzerland’s failures on climate are a human rights violation.

On Tuesday, a group of 2,000 Swiss women won a significant ruling on holding governments accountable for addressing climate change.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that Switzerland failed to implement sufficient climate policies — violating the women’s human rights.

The case could influence other European countries, as well as other international bodies, in their decisions about the legal ramifications of inadequate climate policies.

KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, a group of women climate activists all over the age of 64, initially brought the case against Switzerland in November 2016. After eight years of litigation, Tuesday’s ruling establishes a pathway for European citizens and civil society groups to successfully sue their countries for better climate policy.

That’s important because there are several pending climate change cases at the Court, which is based in Strasbourg, France, including a case against the Norwegian government alleging oil and gas exploration licenses violate citizens’ human rights. Establishing a precedent in the ECHR means that it could apply to the 45 other countries that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

“We keep asking our lawyers, ‘Is that right?,’” Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, a leader of KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, told Reuters. “And they tell us, ‘It’s the most you could have had. The biggest victory possible.’”

How did KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz win?

The women’s strategy relied partly on their medical vulnerability as senior citizens to excessive heat caused by climate change. Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, among others, show that the Swiss population of senior women — especially those over 75 — are more prone to heat-related medical problems like “dehydration, hyperthermia, fatigue, loss of consciousness, heat cramps and heat strokes,” according to the group. Within Switzerland, they are also the most vulnerable to exacerbated health problems, including respiratory, cardiovascular, and kidney problems in excessive heat.

“We are aware that older men, people with diseases as well as small children also suffer from heat waves and other climate effects,” the group wrote on its website. “By focusing on the proven particular susceptibility of us older women we are simply enhancing our lawsuit’s chances of success which is ultimately good for everyone.” Though the women’s suit only affects the law in Switzerland, their win could support similar frameworks to hold countries accountable in the Global South, especially in Latin America.

The group, supported by Greenpeace, spent nearly eight years litigating its case in Swiss courts before going to the ECHR. “There is a principle [in international law] called the exhaustion of domestic remedies, which is that you’re supposed to have gone through the domestic system first,” Catherine Higham, a policy fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, told Vox in an interview. “The reason that the Court found that it could give an opinion there is that it found that … the [Swiss] legal process had failed to give a remedy for what it identified as these violations of the convention rights.”

That’s in contrast to another climate case rejected by the Court on Tuesday, in which six Portuguese young people went straight to the ECHR without going through the Portuguese legal system first. The children, who have suffered extreme heat waves and wildfires in their home country, also tried to sue 32 other nations in addition to Portugal.

“It’s a plausible argument,” Higham said. “ And we’ve seen another international human rights body, the UN Committee on Climate Change, say that states could have extraterritorial obligations in the case of climate change, because it’s kind of fundamentally transboundary in nature.” The ECHR, though, found that the statute was applied too broadly.

What happens now?

Switzerland will now be obligated to update its climate change policies, but the ECHR can’t tell the Swiss government what policies must be implemented, Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told Vox.

“It doesn’t provide a specific injunction or any specific direction — it just says that you have to be more consistent with what the climate science says, but with deference to the policy prerogatives and democratic processes of the Swiss government.”

Switzerland has tried to curb its greenhouse gas emissions, introducing an amendment to its CO2 Act which would halve them by 2030 in comparison to 1990 levels. But a referendum to approve that amendment failed in 2021. Voters later approved a measure to move away from imported oil and gas toward green energy alternatives in an effort to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“The decision affirms that European Human Rights law … requires governments to pursue a high level of climate ambition,” Burger said. Switzerland is likely to take the court’s decision seriously, Burger and Higham said, and it could encourage more domestic cases in countries that are party to the convention.

It could also influence other international bodies, specifically the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which is due to discuss an advisory opinion on climate change and human rights in the coming weeks. That could eventually create a legal framework for the body, which includes many Latin American and Caribbean countries significantly affected by climate change, to pursue cases like the KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz just won.

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