The Swiss grannies behind an effort to get Switzerland to take stronger action on climate changeA group of older women in Switzerland is pushing the government to take stronger action to combat climate change because it harms their health. Photo credit: KlimaSeniorinnen

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By Lisa Sturdee

A Swiss court has ruled that senior women are not more likely than other citizens to suffer the harmful effects of climate change—despite their increased death rate during heatwaves.

The ruling, handed down last week by the Swiss Federal Administrative Court, ruled against the group of more than 450 older women, Senior Women for Climate Protection, which was formed in August 2016 with the help of Greenpeace Switzerland. The group collected evidence showing how climate change uniquely affects women over the age of 75.

More frequent and extreme heatwaves impact older women more than any other demographic as they are more likely to become seriously ill and to die. The Swiss Ministry of Health advises them to stay indoors when the temperature tops 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees F). However, confining themselves at home makes them more likely to become isolated and to lose precious mobility, which is hard to regain once a heatwave is over.

Inspired by the Urgenda case in the Netherlands, in which citizens successfully argued the government must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Swiss group asked the government in November 2016 to reduce emissions to fulfill the state’s duty to protect their health and right to life as required by the Swiss Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Four named individual plaintiffs provided supporting medical evidence that their health had already been negatively affected by recent heatwaves. Their request was rejected in April 2017 on the basis that it was too general and that they did not constitute “victims” of a breach of any of the Human Rights listed in the Convention. They then asked for judicial review of the decision.

Ursula Brunner, lawyer for the group, said the court had rejected the claim mainly on the basis that senior women are not more affected than the general public by climate change and therefore had no right to bring a case under Swiss law. Brunner criticized the court for not considering all of the legal arguments and evidence. The court referred to other vulnerable groups (including young children, people with respiratory conditions and even people at financial risk in the agricultural and tourism sectors) and finally concluded that everybody is equally affected by climate change. Brunner also criticized the court for failing to consider the issues surrounding the fundamental rights to health and life.

There has been critical commentary on this case in the Swiss press (even from more conservative media) decrying that this judgment in effect says the health and lives of senior women is valued the same as financial losses incurred by citizens working in tourism, agriculture and infrastructure.

Brunner said there are two other points in the judgment that are also of interest internationally. The court required a direct and immediate connection between the carbon emissions and their harmful effect, which is difficult to prove and legal experts say the more complex relationship between emissions and temperature will require a more innovative approach to the courts. The judgement also referred to various levels of responsibility for action on climate change—legislators, regulatory bodies and each individual. Apportioning blame to individuals introduces a new element to climate change cases.

The next step is to take the case to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court.

Pia Hollenstein, press officer for the group, said that she expects the group to vote for appeal. She said the group had always been determined to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary.

Hollenstein said the group decided to start legal proceedings because the government’s actions were inadequate and the political process was taking too long. They also hoped to spark more public debate, influence future legislation and take part in the global movement to bring climate change cases.  

Hollenstein said the group’s  members are disappointed, angry and frustrated by the decision, but they remain optimistic.

“It’s in no-one’s interest to have [a] catastrophe,” she said.