Deadly wildfires in Portugal killed dozens in June amid a sweltering European heat wave. Photo credit: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

By Bobby Magill

After more than 60 people died in wildfires that scorched central Portugal this summer, a London nonprofit group plans to file suit against 47 European countries on behalf of six children affected by the fires. The lawsuit aims to force the countries to cut their climate pollution and help prevent future global warming-related disasters.

The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) launched a crowdfunding campaign on Monday to raise the initial $27,000 of an estimated $471,000 necessary to begin assembling the case, which the group hopes to file in the European Court of Human Rights sometime in 2018 or later.

The proposed lawsuit was inspired in part by a similar U.S. suit filed by a group of children in Oregon, Juliana v. United States, which is arguing for a human right to a stable climate and force the U.S. government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists say climate change was a factor in exacerbating the Iberian Peninsula’s extreme summer heat wave, which pushed temperatures to 109 degrees F in central Portugal in mid-June. The heat fueled massive wildfires that burned more than 111,000 acres in Portugal’s Pedrógão Grande region—among the worst blazes in the country’s history.

GLAN, representing the six Portuguese children, says European countries are not sufficiently cutting greenhouse gas emissions to cut the risk of global warming-related disasters and protect human life. The group wants to file suit against all 47 signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights simultaneously and wants  the court to establish emissions cuts for each country and require all of them to cut the use of fossil fuels.

“That specific level is to be worked out on the basis of climate science,” said GLAN legal officer Gerry Liston.

The group’s legal strategy is unprecedented.

“The general rule is applicants must exhaust domestic remedies within their own states,” Liston said. “We’ll be arguing that there’s an exception to that rule: You don’t have to exhaust domestic remedies when they’re not practically available to you.”

Pursuing  legal proceedings in 47 countries where many different languages are spoken is not practical, Liston said. And, it makes the most sense to sue in European court simultaneously so that it can mandate emissions cuts across all the countries at once.

“The European Court of Human Rights is an appropriate venue in which to seek a declaration on the applicability of European human rights law to climate change,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. Burger declined to comment on GLAN’s proposed legal strategy.

Sumudu Atapattu, director of the University of Wisconsin Law School Research Centers whose work focuses on environmental law, climate change and human rights, said it will be interesting to see if the court will consider the case or grant GLAN standing before first exhausting local legal remedies.

“I think it’ll be huge if the European Court decides to take it,” Atapattu said. “It’ll be groundbreaking, I think, because then any international NGO will be able to bring up cases on behalf of children or something similar. That’s why I’m wondering if the European Court will be willing to open the floodgates.”

GLAN’s crowdfunding strategy may suggest that there is a lot of public support for the establishment of a human right to a stable climate, Atapattu said.

“People are very concerned about the impact of climate change on their rights, their enjoyment of rights and survival in many instances,” she said.

Julia Olson, chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust, representing the young plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States, said that GLAN’s strategy to sue in the European Court of Human Rights is important because there is an urgent need to reduce the threats to human life posed by climate change.

“I think our cases, and the youth that we are working with, are inspiring and motivating youth like the Portuguese youth to recognize their fundamental human rights and advocate that governments must protect those rights,” Olson said. “This case will involve common obligations of all European nations, and common rights held by all European youth. These injured youth depend upon the whole EU to act to protect their basic human rights.”

Erika Lennon, a senior attorney for the Center for International Environmental Law, said the Our Children’s Trust case and other cases in Pakistan and the Netherlands are part of a rising tide of climate litigation across the globe. CIEL has filed a friend of the court brief supporting the Our Children’s Trust case.

“It reflects a growing recognition that politics alone is not moving the climate needle far enough fast enough and that there is a critical role for the courts in addressing that gap, Lennon said.

She said CIEL has not seen GLAN’s legal theories and cannot comment on its prospects for success in European Court.

“It is clear that, in Europe, as in other major emitting countries, the current level of ambition and action fall far below what is needed to keep the world below 1.5 degrees of warming,” Lennon said. “That failure poses immediate threats to human rights within and beyond Europe and it must be remedied.”

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