Even the temperate, mountainous country of Switzerland is not immune to climate change. Strong heat waves melt alpine glaciers, kill trees and fish and, in cities, are likely to cause increased human deaths.
Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, who lives in Basel, knows this well. A woman in her 70s, she belongs to the demographic most vulnerable to heat-related death. To him, the government’s response to recent heat waves — warning the elderly to stay in the shade during hot days, for example — seems like a Band-Aid. He wants to see people address the root of the problem: countries like Switzerland that aren’t doing enough to curb emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
With support from Greenpeace Switzerland, Wydler-Wälti and other members of a group of senior female climate activists filed a lawsuit against the Swiss government in 2016, demanding faster that the state can curb emissions. They argue that the government, by not pursuing policies consistent with the global goal of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, is threatening the basic human right to life in senior women. In fact, many of the women involved eventually reported experiencing heart palpitations, vomiting, swollen arms and legs and difficulty breathing in recent heat waves, and some reported fainting. .
Hundreds of lawsuits like this have been filed around the world in recent years, as activists, frustrated by the slow pace at which countries are moving to cut greenhouse gas emissions, have turned to the courts. for help. The success rate surprised many experts. Of the cases filed outside the United States — the focus of one analysis — dozens have had consequences that encourage more aggressive climate action, according to a 2022 report from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. -or in Climate and Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. . In a landmark case that ended in 2019, for example, Dutch courts ordered the government to set more ambitious climate targets.
But such cases do not always succeed. To Wydler-Wälti’s dismay, after a series of courts dismissed the case, the Swiss Supreme Court concluded in 2020 that women’s rights had not been violated enough to warrant a case. “We have to be close to death for them to believe that we are more affected,” Wydler-Wälti said angrily.
Examining why some cases succeed while others do not is essential to understanding the future of this rapidly growing field of litigation. Experts say success depends on many factors—not only the plaintiffs’ arguments but also the design of a country’s legal system, its political environment, and apparent willingness and/or ability. of judges to interpret the scientific evidence about climate change.
“One of the reasons it’s important to look closely at these cases and the impact they’re having is because their impact is likely to only grow in the coming years, as people increasingly look to litigation as an important way to address the problems of climate change,” said Hari Osofsky, an expert in human rights law now at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, who in 2020 co- author of an overview of climate change litigation in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science.
That said, “litigation by itself will not close the emissions gap,” Osofsky added. “Climate change solutions require many different types of action.”