“I was always in feminist groups who wanted to keep the Earth clean,” says Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti. Based in Basel, Switzerland, Wydler-Wälti has been an environmental and feminist activist since her youth in the 1970s. Now 73, she is co-president of the Association of Senior Women for Climate Protection (KlimaSeniorinnen) in Switzerland, a group of more than 2,000 older women that has, this year, taken the Swiss government to the European Court of Human Rights over its climate-change policy.
Wydler-Wälti and her co-plaintiffs say that Switzerland’s inaction on climate change is violating their right to life and health, owing to the disproportionate effects that heatwaves have on the health of older people — and on older women in particular. “I think it’s very bad that women are dying more, old women,” she says.
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The Swiss case is one of three lawsuits against national governments that are being heard by the European court — and all have scientific evidence at the heart of their claims. The other actions include a case against the French government brought by a former mayor, and a one against 33 European countries brought by six6 children and young adults living in Portugal. All three cases say that the governments are violating their human rights by failing to take sufficient action on climate change.
The plaintiffs in the Swiss suit want the nation to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by more than 60% below 1990 levels by 2030, in line with the Paris accord target of limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 °C. They also want the country — a rich nation with relatively high historical emissions — to contribute to substantial emissions reductions abroad. Switzerland has committed to cutting emissions by at least 50% overall, but aims to achieve this with only a 34% domestic reduction, with the remaining 16% to be accounted for by emissions reductions abroad.
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Wydler-Wälti says that her motivation to join the case stemmed from her desire to make the world a better place for everyone, including future generations. “If we are winning, it’s coming better for everybody and for the planet and all living things,” she says. “We are fighting for our next generation, for our grandchildren.”
To be successful in court, “scientific evidence both of increased risks of heatwaves and of the particular susceptibility of elderly women to injury and death from heatwaves is key”, say lawyers Vesselina Newman and Lea Main-Klingst at ClientEarth, a group of environmental lawyers. (Neither Newman, based in London, nor Main-Klingst, based in Berlin, are involved in the three cases.)
“Science is of great importance,” says Cordelia Bähr, the lead lawyer on the Swiss action, which is supported by organizations including Greenpeace Switzerland in Zurich. “This case was built on scientific studies,” she says. “Without the work of scientists, of many scientists, it wouldn’t have been possible.”
The case cites evidence from reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including the IPCC’s 2021 Sixth Assessment Report, which concluded that it is “virtually certain” that hot extremes, including heatwaves, have become more frequent and more intense because of human-induced climate change. The report references studies on mortality in Europe during a 2003 summer heatwave, which found that most of the excess deaths occurred in older people and that older women were at a greater risk of dying than older men.
“The internationally recognized IPCC reports are a strong source,” say Newman and Main-Klingst. “These reports are the result of a rigorous process whereby hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists review tens of thousands of scientific papers.” IPCC reports are signed off by countries, including Switzerland, providing an extra advantage in proceedings, say the lawyers. “Their reports thus not only reflect scientific consensus, but also political consensus.”
The Swiss case also cites the 2022 report of the Lancet Countdown1 on health and climate change, an annual publication by an international collaboration of health and climate specialists. According to that report, rapidly increasing temperatures globally exposed vulnerable populations — adults older than 65 and children younger than one — to 3.7 billion more ‘heatwave -days’ in 2021 than annually between 1986 and 2005.
“There’s no doubt that elderly people are at acute risk during heatwaves,” says Marina Romanello, a climate and health researcher at University College London and executive director of the Lancet Countdown. “The elderly have reduced capacity to thermoregulate. They feel the heat less so they don’t respond as perhaps a younger person in terms of realizing that they need to hydrate or that they need to cool down,” she says.
Several members of the Association of Senior Women for Climate Protection say that their health and well-being have been affected by heatwaves, and four plaintiffs have submitted medical certificates as evidence. Wydler-Wälti says that she hasn’t personally experienced heat-related medical issues, but that warm temperatures affect her day-to-day life. “When it was about 30 °C, sometimes when I went up the stairs in my house, I went lying down,” she says.
Young and old
It isn’t clear why older women are particularly at risk from heat, but a 2022 study that examined sex-related differences in heat-related mortality in the Netherlands suggested that social isolation might be a factor2. Older women are more likely than older men to live alone, and physical and social isolation are correlated with heat-related mortality. “I know a lot of cases that have to do with loneliness and social isolation, and that is where perhaps women come to the forefront, because they generally outlive men,” says Romanello.
The adverse effects of climate change on human rights have been established in court at a national level, notably in the case of the Urgenda Foundation, a citizens’ climate-change-mitigation group in Amsterdam that sued the Dutch government in 2013. In 2015, a district court in The Hague ruled in favour of the foundation, which had asked for strengthened government action to protect the low-lying nation from the harmful environmental effects of climate change.
And this month, a Montana state court ruled in favour of a group of young people who had filed a lawsuit alleging that the state’s policies to promote fossil fuels violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment”. However, the Swiss and other cases represent the first time that the European Court of Human Rights has been asked to address the link between human rights and climate change.
If the Swiss case succeeds, the government could be forced to take effective mitigation measures to protect older people and other vulnerable groups from injuries and death resulting from heatwaves. This would mean acting to prevent further increase of these risks, including by committing to reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions in line with the Paris accord target.
In response to a request for comment, Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice referred Nature to the memorandum that it submitted to the court in December on the admissibility and the merits of the case.
Newman and Main-Klingst say that a win by the plaintiffs would be internationally significant. “A confirmation by the European Court of Human Rights of the adverse effects of climate change on our convention rights is bound to shape future climate action far beyond Switzerland’s borders, marking an important advance in the climate law-scape.”. Decisions about the three cases are expectedby early 2024.
Wydler-Wälti is optimistic and says that, in addition to being a big win for the environment, success in court would represent victories against ageism and sexism. “Three wins,” she says.