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Environmental Law: Fortune Favours the Brave

Updated: Jun 5

These communities stepped up to the fight against climate change- and the courts backed them. Chloe Moriarty discusses a recent landmark climate victory, its place in the broader fight for nature, and the communities that are reshaping their own futures.


President Armen Sarkissian took part in the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow. Image Credits: President.am on Wikimedia Commons.


Society is founded on law; on morality and justice; on the principle of righting wrongs; on the ideal of bettering the world. Environmental law particularly picks up on this last thread, as an expanding area of legal framework that sets out to rectify environmental injustices inflicted upon people or the planet, ranging from inadequate governmental policy to large oil spills; from the continents to the oceans. Such court cases may be established by larger organisations such as ClientEarth, Greenpeace, or Friends of the Earth, but are also often fought by the individuals or communities that are impacted by a particular policy or harm. One of the biggest recent examples of this is Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland- the Swiss elderly women versus the Swiss government.

 

The most known segment of this story played out in the European Court of Human Rights, but it had begun long before that. Dissatisfied with the Swiss government’s climate policies, a group of over 2,000 elderly women in Switzerland decided that they wanted to take the government to court over its failure to protect their right to life from the adverse effects of climate change. Having lost their case at the Swiss Supreme Court in May 2020, the women decided to take the matter further by applying for the case to be tried at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in November 2020, an arduous process which took four years of interventions and responses for a final verdict to be delivered by the Grand Chamber. When the verdict came, those years of tireless campaigning finally paid off. 


Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and Others v. Switzerland was heard at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Image Credits: CherryX on Wikimedia Commons.

 

On the 9th of April 2024, the Swiss government was found to have violated Articles 6 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, for ‘[failing] to comply with its positive obligations under the Convention concerning climate change’ and ‘not [acting] in time and in an appropriate way to devise, develop, and implement relevant legislation and measures’. Whilst the judges exercised caution in their rulings- two other climate cases brought against their respective governments were dismissed- this verdict rippled around the world, being the first ruling made by the ECtHR on global warming, and one which could shape policy in over 45 other European countries. The determination of this group of Swiss women had resulted in a landmark victory, proving that anyone, from anywhere, has the power to make a difference.

 

Whilst this may be one of the most famous successes in environmental law, it is certainly not the first and won’t be the last. In May, the High Court ruled that the UK’s climate action plan remains ‘unlawful’, in the second victory for Friends of the Earth, ClientEarth, and the Good Law Project after their previous action against the government’s climate policies in 2022. In addition, discussions remain ongoing in Ireland over the possibility of adopting the Human Right to a Clean Environment, already recognised by the majority of EU countries, as well as granting nature its own rights, following a citizens’ assembly in March 2023. The latter forms part of an emerging movement towards the recognition of nature’s right to exist and thrive alongside humans, established in a legal framework that strengthens existing environmental legislation and prevents further ecological harm. Some natural landscapes have already been granted these rights in Peru, New Zealand, and India.


The Wanganui River in New Zealand was granted legal personhood in 2017. Image Credits: Krzysztof Golik on Wikimedia Commons.

 

It is important to highlight the work of indigenous groups around the world in championing environmental justice, who have long considered nature to have rights and have remained firm protectors of the natural world in the face of environmental destruction. In the Amazon region, indigenous peoples have long been fighting the construction of dams that would flood their lands and disrupt local ecosystem functioning, via a series of relentless petitions and occupations. This most famously manifested in the controversial construction of the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, a structure that severely disrupted the functioning of the ecosystem and impeded on indigenous communities’ livelihoods. In Sweden, the Sámi people have called on the government to construct wildlife bridges and protective fencing so that their reindeer, on which they depend for reindeer herding, are sheltered from increasing animal-vehicle collisions. Thanks to the efforts of the estimated 476 million indigenous peoples globally around 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is protected, offering a beacon of hope to us all.

 

Law is just one vessel through which positive change can be enacted. There are communities working around the world to actively restore nature; to protect it from the expansion of infrastructure; to study it so that we might better understand its intricacies. Yet it is clear that law can provide one of the biggest opportunities to catalyse change at a local, national, and global level, and allows those that are often unheard to project their voices. The fight for a better world is endless, and one that often feels hopeless; these stories serve as a reminder that it is never too late to speak up and shape the future. Every spark is capable of starting a fire- it’s up to us to light the match.

 


About the Author: Chloe Moriarty is a second-year BSc Geography student at the University of Exeter, with a keen interest in historic extinctions, human-wildlife conflicts, and environmental law. She runs an environmental campaign on campus, and volunteers weekly for an environmental education charity. You can find out more and connect with Chloe via her LinkedIn.

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4 Comments


Guest
Jun 04

I didn't realise that environmental law was that big of a thing, but I'm excited by its potential to hold people to account and drive change. Great article!

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Guest
Jun 03

Super interesting- definitely learnt something about environmental law.

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Guest
Jun 02

Excellent read Chloe and very informative. It’s Important to continue highlighting the good work being done around the world

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Guest
Jun 02

Great read Chloe, really enjoyed

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