Charge of the climate brigade: Women and activists are suing governments for failing to protect their right to life - Hindustan Times

Charge of the climate brigade: Women and activists are suing governments for failing to protect their right to life

Apr 14, 2024 07:33 PM IST

Two recent court judgments, one by the Supreme Court and one by a human rights court in Strasbourg have set precedents for new climate litigation.

India’s Supreme Court has, for the first time, weighed in on climate change, ruling that citizens have a right to lead a life safe from its adverse effects.

Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg talks with Rosmarie Wydler-Walti, of the Swiss elderly women group Senior Women for Climate Protection(REUTERS)
Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg talks with Rosmarie Wydler-Walti, of the Swiss elderly women group Senior Women for Climate Protection(REUTERS)

The apex court was hearing a petition filed by wildlife activist M.K. Ranjitsinh to protect the critically-endangered Great Indian Bustard and Lesser Florican. Due to the death of these birds after colliding with overhead transmission wires attached to solar panels, the Supreme Court had in April 2021 ordered that the wires be placed underground over an area of 80,000 sq km in Rajasthan and Gujarat where these birds are found.

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The government had appealed against that decision saying it wasn’t feasible to do so. Moreover, it argued, the installation of solar panels was in keeping with India’s commitment to reduce carbon footprint. The Supreme Court was hearing that appeal.

Over 6,200 km away in Strasbourg, France, Europe’s top human rights court ruled on Tuesday that humans have a right to safety from climate catastrophes. It was hearing a case brought by more than 2,000 Swiss women, the youngest in this group is 64-years-old, who had sued their government for violating their human rights by failing to protect them from climate change.

The court agreed with the women: The Swiss government had “failed to comply with its own targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and had failed to set a national carbon budget.”

Known as KlimaSeniorinnen, the Swiss women’s group said government inaction has put them at risk of dying during heatwaves. They argued that age and gender makes them particularly vulnerable to climate change impact.

[I wrote about the case in an earlier newsletter here]

The two cases are unrelated but share a common concern about climate change. Both seek to fix responsibility. And both courts lay it at the government’s door.

The Supreme Court judgement was pronounced on March 21 but uploaded on the website just days ago.

Growing trend of climate litigation

The verdict by the European court against the Swiss government, writes Politco Europe, establishes “a potent precedent that people living in 46 nations under the jurisdiction of the court could potentially use to sue their own governments.” The verdict cannot be appealed. If Switzerland does not update its policies, it will make itself liable to further litigation, including financial penalties.

A growing trend of climate activism in the courts will have an impact throughout the world. From Australia to Peru, courts are hearing climate cases premised on the violation of human rights.

This litigation includes a lawsuit against the Norwegian government that accuses it of violating human rights by continuing to issue licenses for oil exploration in the Barents Sea.

In the Netherlands, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier district court ruling asking the government to further cut down the emission of greenhouse gases (State of the Netherlands v Urgenda Foundation). The Dutch Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to life in compelling the state to adopt more ambitious policies.

In Argentina, 16 children of different nationalities wrote jointly to the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) saying the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to curb carbon pollution amounted to a violation of their rights under UN conventions (Sacchi et al v Argentina). CRC said the letter was inadmissible but affirmed that governments must bear responsibility for failing to curb harmful emissions.

While conceding to the Swiss women’s group, the Strasbourg court, however, dismissed another case brought by Portuguese youngsters saying that they had not yet exhausted legal avenues within their own country’s jurisdictions.

Disproportionate burden

Everybody is impacted by climate change, but everybody is not impacted equally.

Women, particularly marginalised women, pay an additional cost, whether it is walking further in search of water or being unable to afford treatment for ailments caused by toxic air. Women make up the bulk of agricultural labour and, so, extreme weather events whether drought or excessive rain; heat or cold, impacts their labour directly.

Nearly 80% of people being displaced by climate change are women and girls. A UN Women report warns that climate change could push another 158 million women and girls into poverty.

The Supreme Court verdict makes a reference to the rights of vulnerable groups, including indigineous people, local communities and migrants. The three-judge bench headed by chief justice D.Y. Chandrachud and including justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra also expressed concern that despite government policy, there is “no single or umbrella legislation in India which relates to climate change and the attendant concern.”

The following article is an excerpt from this week's HT Mind the Gap.

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    Namita Bhandare writes on gender and other social issues and has 25 years of experience in journalism. She has edited books and features in a documentary on sexual violence. She tweets as @namitabhandare

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