29 March 2023 was a day to remember in the fight against the consequences of global warming.
On that day the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) agreed to a resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) about states’ obligations regarding climate change, including their human rights obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
By coincidence this came on the same day that two lawsuits regarding states obligations for climate change appeared before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
And on the same day the UK government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) issued its damning report on the lack of progress by the UK government, saying the UK is ‘strikingly unprepared’ to cope with the impacts of the climate crisis.
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The UNGA resolution asked the ICJ for guidance on questions of accountability for “states that have caused significant harm to the climate,” including with respect to small island states, and to peoples and individuals adversely affected by climate change.
The ICJ’s advisory opinion will not be legally binding but it will carry great moral and legal authority and can ultimately become part of customary international law, which is legally binding on states.
The resolution was initiated by Vanuatu, a South Pacific island state whose very existence is at risk from climate change. Nearly 20 countries around the world, most of them small, actively championed the resolution in a global demonstration underlining the urgency of the climate crisis.
Supporters of the initiative hope that the ICJ’s advisory opinion will direct countries to strengthen their domestic climate policies by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and will catalyse more ambitious cooperation on climate change among states to protect the rights of at-risk populations in the countries most affected by the climate crisis.
Two ECHR Lawsuits
In the first lawsuit, more than 2,000 Swiss women over the age of 64 complained that the Switzerland has failed to introduce suitable legislation and to put appropriate and sufficient measures in place to attain the targets for combating climate change. They argued that their age made them particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis because heatwaves, which are becoming more frequent and intense, put their health at risk and appealed to the court to order Switzerland to set tougher emission reductions targets and to do everything in its power to do its fair share to keep the global temperature rise to below 1.5C.
The second lawsuit in front of the court on that day was brought against the government of France by Damien Carême, a former mayor of the northern municipality of Grande-Synthe and now a Green MEP.
As mayor, Carême had petitioned the French president, prime minister and environment minister to do more to cut national emissions. He submitted to the court that France has taken insufficient steps to prevent climate change and that this failure entails a violation of the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life.
CCC [Lack of] Progress Report
Talking about the CCC’s highly critical 2023 Progress Report published on the same day, CCC chief executive Chris Stark said that last year’s record UK temperature of greater than 40C and the heatwave that led to the deaths of more than 3000 people will soon “become the norm”, but the UK government is not taking action on heat-proofing homes. “The government is not putting together a plan that reflects the scale and the nature of the risks that face the whole country. This is completely critical. There is no option but to adapt to the change in the climate. The question is only whether we do that well by doing it early or wait until later.”