Two years ago, a group of teens and pre-teens filed a petition with the United Nations saying five major emitters were violating their rights. On Monday, the UN committee tasked with reviewing their complaint basically handed them a participation trophy and then ruled largely in favor of the polluting countries.
The case was filed against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey, five G20 countries that have signed onto the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the complaint, Greta Thunberg and 15 co-plaintiffs alleged that those countries were violating their rights but using the atmosphere as a carbon dioxide waste dump. Those countries responded by saying they had climate plans and were trying their best, and that if the children really wanted a solution, they should file lawsuits in each country so the courts there could handle it.
After two years of hearings, the kids didn’t get back the remedy they sought. The committee ruled that yes, climate change is a huge issue and yes, countries are responsible for winding down emissions because of the harm they cause to kids around the world. But it ruled that the kids had failed to exhaust legal avenues in the five countries named in the complaint, and the committee wouldn’t hold those countries to account until that happened.
“I have no doubt this judgment will haunt the Committee in the future,” said petitioner Alexandria Villasenor in a statement. “When the climate disasters are even more severe than they are now, the Committee will severely regret not doing the right thing when they had the chance. Children are increasingly on the frontlines of the climate crisis, accounting for over 80% of climate-related deaths. Yet again, the adults have failed to protect us.”
“What is surprising is the way in which the committee essentially recognized that these children’s rights have been violated, that there’s a causal link between those emissions and the harm that our clients have suffered, and that those states have an obligation to reduce those emissions to prevent harm to children outside their borders,” said Scott Gilmore, a counsel with Hausfeld who helped with the complaint before noting that the idea of filing a bunch of national level cases doesn’t square. “That process in itself would take years. And as we all know, there are not years left to mitigate emissions. It has to be done immediately.”
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Indeed, perhaps the most prominent climate case in U.S. courts is Juliana vs. United States, a case filed by kids and young adults in 2015 that is still winding its way through the court system. Over that time, emissions have risen unchecked—save the bump in 2020 that was the pandemic. Climate science, meanwhile, shows that carbon pollution needs to start winding down now at a rate of roughly 8% per year, every year this decade in order to have a fair shot at limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a target outlined in the Paris Agreement. That “safe” level of global warming would still result in a world vastly different than our current one, which has heated up about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) since pre-industrial times.
“It is a victory in terms of advancing human rights law for the committee to recognize these states over human rights obligations to children outside their borders, because that’s something that all five of these states denied,” Gilmore said. “But again, an abstract victory is a hollow victory.”
While the case may not have had the outcome the kids had hoped for, that will only ratchet up pressure on world leaders next month when they meet in Glasgow for pivotal climate talks. It shouldn’t be on kids, of course, to remind leaders of the stakes given the blaring alarms from scientists and other facets of civil society for years. But it seems it’s all hands on deck.
“This decision really underscores the need for the climate activism that children have already taken up around the world,” Gilmore said. “This is yet another illustration that, quite frankly, the human rights system set up by adults is failing the world’s youth.”