Young people in Germany are challenging the government's latest climate targets with a new lawsuit.Young people in Germany have filed a lawsuit challenging the government's climate targets as too low to curb dangerous warming. Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

A group of young people in Germany are suing the German government over climate policy they say fails to protect their fundamental rights. The lawsuit, filed last week by nine plaintiffs between the ages of 15 and 32, asks the Federal Constitutional Court to review Germany’s new climate protection law passed in November. That law, the young people say, does not go far enough to address the climate crisis. 

“With this climate protection act, the state is not sufficiently fulfilling its duty of protection for my clients. They will experience dramatic limitations from the climate crisis in their lives,” said Roda Verheyen, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. 

Germany has admitted it would not meet its 2020 climate target of reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels, a failure that prompted three farming families to sue the government in 2018. The Berlin Administrative Court dismissed that case in October, finding that the families’ fundamental rights had not yet been violated. The court did, however, recognize the principle that the government could violate fundamental rights by failing to act adequately on climate change. 

“For the very first time, a German court ruled that people’s fundamental rights can be violated by the impacts of climate change, and that in principle the German government can be held accountable,” Greenpeace Germany’s Lisa Goeldner said during a panel on climate litigation during the UN climate conference in Madrid in December.

Germany’s climate protection law, a package of measures aimed at meeting the 2030 target of 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, passed just weeks after the Berlin court issued its ruling. The young plaintiffs said it prompted them to rethink their strategy, focusing not on the missed 2020 target but instead on the new policy, which critics say is far too weak to stave off dangerous climate change. “You have failed in humanity’s task of protecting the climate,” Green Party leader Anton Hofreiter told fellow lawmakers ahead of the vote. 

According to Greenpeace Germany, which is supporting the young plaintiffs in the new suit, it makes sense to bring a constitutional case challenging the new law, rather than appeal the ruling dismissing the farming families’ case. “From a legal point of view, this is a completely different starting point than the first climate complaint,” Greenpeace lawyers said. “The administrative court can only check whether the government is implementing laws correctly—however, a substantive examination of the laws themselves is the task of the Federal Constitutional Court.” Greenpeace pointed to the Urgenda lawsuit in the Netherlands, in which the Dutch Supreme Court affirmed  the government’s duty to  take stronger climate action to protect citizens.

“We rely very much on the reasoning and methods of the Dutch Supreme Court,” said Verheyen. “While constitutional complaints are always very difficult we feel that the constitutional court in Karlsruhe has good reason to take on the case and deliver some sort of answer as to where the duty to protect starts and ends.”

Seven of the young plaintiffs in the new German lawsuit are from the three farming families that brought the previous climate lawsuit against the government. Also among the plaintiffs are 23- year-old Luisa Neubauer, the co-founder of Germany’s “Fridays for Future” climate strike movement, and 18-year-old Lueke Recktenwald, who lives on a small North Sea island threatened by rising seas.

“The climate protection law endangers our present and future, Neubauer said. “I am ready to demand an adequate climate policy not only on the streets, but also in court.” 

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