WOMEN FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE
Swiss women use the law
to fight climate change
September 2023: You are never too old to do something for the wider community, thought several older ladies in August 2016 and founded KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz (Climate Seniors Switzerland) (1). They simply wanted to force the Swiss government (Bundesrat) to make climate protection a priority and honour Swiss commitments to the Paris Climate Accords (2). The women argue that Switzerland's inaction affects their human rights and reduces the life expectancy of older women. Because Swiss courts declined to hear their legal complaints, the KlimaSeniorinnen took their case to the Strasbourg based European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) (3)
The contention of the group forms part of a growing body of evidence indicating that global warming shortens life expectancy. When the Swiss women first launched their challenge in 2016, the evidence that high temperatures disproportionately impacted on women was limited. That is not the case anymore. For example, a study published in the journal Nature found that the 2022 heatwaves in Europe killed 61,000 people, with 56 per cent more women affected than men. The study also found that older women were particularly vulnerable to the heatwaves that are becoming more frequent and intense.
Separate research by the University of Bern also showed that higher temperatures, especially heatwaves such as those Europe experienced in the summers of 2022 and 2023, lead to premature deaths. The university's research revealed that heat-related deaths affected people over 65 years of age in nearly 90 per cent of cases. The number of deaths was generally higher among women than among men. Older women had the highest mortality rate among all the research subgroups.
The authors of the Nature study emphasised that there was not yet enough research available to say conclusively why rising temperature impacted more on women than on men. One of the reasons could be that women live longer. It is also thought that physiological differences and sociocultural factors play a part. A team of Dutch and German scientists speculated that reduced sweat production in females may play a role. “Roughly, elderly people sweat half the amount compared to young people and women half that of men. In other words, the ability of older females to lose heat from the body is the lowest.”
The legal complaint by the KlimaSeniorinnen states that the Swiss authorities have failed to act on climate change. “Climate change has a harmful effect on people’s living conditions and health.” The women argue that Switzerland has not fulfilled its obligations under Articles 2 and 8 of the Convention on Human Rights (4). Article 2 refers to people’s ‘Right to Life’, while Article 8 deals with protecting people’s privacy and family life. The climate seniors also maintain that they were declined access to Swiss courts.
The Swiss climate activists are using women's vulnerability to back up their lawsuit which, if successful, could have Europe-wide implications. The case against Switzerland before the European Court of Human Rights is the first climate lawsuit at European level. The Strasbourg court must now decide whether a state's climate policy violates human rights. If Switzerland were to be convicted, it would have far-reaching consequences for Europe. A ruling in favour of the climate seniors could be used as precedent in future legal challenges against the climate policies of all or any of the 46 member states of the Council of Europe (5).
The Swiss case is one of three currently being heard by the ECHR. Also suing is Damien Carême (6), a former mayor of the French town of Grande-Synthe, which is threatened by rising sea levels. And then there is the lawsuit by six Portuguese children and young people. They are suing 33 countries, including Germany and Switzerland, for allowing the release of harmful greenhouse gas emissions that increase the risk of heatwaves and other environmental disasters.
It is expected that the three lawsuits will be heard together with a guiding judgement to be issued by the end of this year or, at the latest, in early 2024.
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1) KlimaSeniorinnen was founded in August 2016 by some 150 senior women. The group has now more than 2,300 members in addition to some 1,000 supporters. Because older women are most affected by the more frequent and more intense heatwaves, membership, on the advice of their lawyers, is restricted to older women. The average age of members is currently 73.
2) The Paris Climate Accords, is an international treaty on climate change. Adopted in 2015, the agreement covers climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance.
3) The European Court of Human Rights (EctHR) was set up in 1959. It hears applications alleging that a contracting state has breached one or more of the human rights provisions concerning civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights.
4) The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects the human rights of people in countries that belong to the Council of Europe. All 47 Member States of the Council, including the UK, have signed the Convention. Its full title is the ‘Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’.
5) The Council of Europe was founded after the Second World War to protect human rights and the rule of law, and to promote democracy. The Member States’ first task was to draw up a treaty to secure basic rights for anyone within their borders, including their own citizens and people of other nationalities.
6) Damien Carême was shortlisted for the 2016 World Mayor Prize
• KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, • University of Bern, • Fuller Project, • Greenpeace, • US National Library of Medicine, • Yale Climate Connections, • University of Utrecht, • Copernicus