The Irish Times view on the European Court of Human Rights decision on climate change: key messages for Ireland

Ruling will focus minds on what is an adequate response, and it will mean more citizens will seek to ensure governments are held legally and politically accountable

The decision of the European Court of Human Rights that the Swiss government violated its citizens’ human rights by not doing enough to stop climate change will have ramifications for many EU countries, but particularly for Ireland.

The landmark decision this week was in a case brought by older women in Switzerland, who claimed their health problems were exacerbated by climate-induced heatwaves. Two other related cases were deemed inadmissible, including one brought by six young Portuguese people and led by Irish lawyers who are part of the Global Legal Action Network. As young people, they claimed that they were especially vulnerable to extreme climate events. It is a position which could be upheld if the case is reframed and goes through a domestic court in the first instance.

The vulnerability of Ireland to such actions is because of measurable indications that climate policies are inadequate given the scale of the threat to citizens. And because of the failure to curb the country’s stubbornly high level of carbon emissions – despite the Government’s big ambitions and demanding carbon budgets.

The verdict requires states to use the best available scientific evidence in addressing the crisis, while highlighting the important role of domestic courts in protecting children’s rights. To protect human rights, it found there is a need “to take into account the existing and constantly developing scientific evidence on the necessity of combating climate change and the urgency of addressing its adverse effects, including the grave risk of their inevitability and their irreversibility”. Essentially, there must be “scientific, political and judicial recognition of a link between the adverse effects of climate change and the enjoyment of (various aspects of) human rights”.

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While the court cannot impose sanctions, its rulings can be used in cases brought at national level to hold governments accountable for failure to comply with them. It is therefore expected that it will bring about a new wave of climate cases in domestic courts in Europe.

The Government is also vulnerable to litigation for failure to recognise in law a right to “a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”, despite recent indications it would do so. It co-sponsored a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council to this effect and has examined incorporating the right into the Constitution.

After months of record global temperatures, and growing concern about the speed of warming and resulting extreme weather events, countries do not need reminding of the need for greater urgency. However, this ruling will focus minds on what is an adequate response, and it will mean more citizens will seek to ensure governments are held legally and politically accountable for repeated failures to take meaningful climate action

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