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Climate Anxiety's Growing Role in Climate Justice

Written by Vidya Prithviraj for the Environmental Law Section.



It is no surprise that climate change is a concern for people all over the globe. It is our very existence that is, after all, at stake. This article exemplifies this truth and takes a brief glance at how the relevant organisations are reacting to it.

The majority of people are concerned about the environment, but young people are especially affected by climate anxiety. It can manifest in many different ways, such as worrying about natural disasters, the ecosystem, or biodiversity, or even just health effects such as trouble breathing and an increased heart rate.[1] More relevant now, as people are beginning to take their governments to court for not doing enough to prevent or slow climate change,[2] climate anxiety effectively illustrates the harm people are suffering due to the climate crisis, rather than speculating about what they could suffer in the future.

 

Despite this, there have been successful cases against governments without a focus on climate anxiety. An example of this is the Urgenda Foundation’s case against the Netherlands. The Urgenda Foundation and 900 citizens of the Netherlands sued their Government to take more action to prevent climate change. In the Hague, the court found that the Dutch Government's pledge was insufficient to meet the UN goal of temperature increase within two degrees of temperatures before the Industrial Revolution. The Dutch Government subsequently appealed this, and Urgenda also submitted a cross-appeal. The case was eventually appealed to the Netherlands Supreme Court, which agreed with the original ruling.[3] This was one of the first successful climate justice cases, sparking more environmental organisations to hold their governments accountable.

 

This is demonstrated by a case from 2016, where some environmental groups attempted to get a Judgment from the Oslo District Court that Norway's Ministry of Petroleum and Energy had violated their constitution after they allowed licences for deep-sea extraction of oil and gas. They stated that the development of these licences would be finding fresh fossil fuels, inconsistent with the action necessary to keep global warming to 2 degrees of pre-Industrial Revolution levels. They also claimed that the Ministry violated Article 112 of the Norwegian Constitution, which concerned the right to a healthy environment. The Oslo District Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Norwegian Supreme Court held that the licences were valid.[4]  The environmental groups then filed an application with the ECtHR. However, a significant fact about the Arctic oil case is that climate anxiety was used to support its claim that fundamental rights were breached by the government’s policies.[5] 

 

The case used research and evidence to defend this position.[6] One study that surveyed 10, 000 under 25s, showed that 59% were ‘very or extremely worried’, and that 84% were at least moderately worried. Additionally, 75% said that they found the future frightening, while 83% thought that their Government had failed to look after the environment, reporting feelings of betrayal.[7] 

 

In the lawsuit against Norway, this was essential in showing that people’s rights under Article 8 were violated - the right to respect for private and family life. Climate anxiety also proves that people are already suffering from government policies - for instance, the six Portuguese activists currently taking 33 governments to court. After the wildfires in Portugal in 2017, which killed over 100 people, there have been permanent effects on the lives of people there. Of the six claimants of this case, one still gets frightened when she hears helicopters, as they sound like the firefighters who battled the wildfires in 2017. She is around eleven years old. Alongside this, some are also suffering from respiratory conditions such as severe asthma, or bad allergies. They are taking all EU member states to court, as well as others including the UK.

 

The case will be heard by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), who will discuss the admissibility of the case. If they rule in favour of the claimants, the 33 governments would be bound to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,[8] and take more care with their environmental impact. This would have a huge effect on environmental policy in Europe, putting far more pressure on governments to take positive action to prevent global warming and limit their carbon emissions. A decision is expected in the first half of 2024.[9]







References

[1] ‘Yale Experts Explain Climate Anxiety’ (Yale Sustainability, 13 March 2023) <https://sustainability.yale.edu/explainers/yale-experts-explain-climate-anxiety> accessed 15 January 2024.

[2] Katarina Zimmer, ‘The next Climate Battle in the Courts Is over Mental Health’ (Grist, 7 July 2022) <https://grist.org/international/the-next-climate-battle-in-the-courts-is-over-mental-health/> accessed 15 January 2024.

[3] ‘Urgenda Foundation v. State of the Netherlands’ (Climate Change Litigation) <https://climatecasechart.com/non-us-case/urgenda-foundation-v-kingdom-of-the-netherlands/> accessed 15 January 2024.

[4] ‘Greenpeace Nordic Ass’n v. Ministry of Petroleum and Energy (People v Arctic Oil)’ (Climate Change Litigation) <https://climatecasechart.com/non-us-case/greenpeace-nordic-assn-and-nature-youth-v-norway-ministry-of-petroleum-and-energy/> accessed 15 January 2024.

[5] (n3).

[6] Ibid.

[7]Caroline Hickman and others, ‘Climate Anxiety in Children and Young People and Their Beliefs about Government Responses to Climate Change: A Global Survey - ScienceDirect’ (2021) 5 The Lancet Planetary Health 863.

[8] ‘Climate Change: Six Young People Take 32 Countries to Court’ BBC News (27 September 2023) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-66923590> accessed 15 January 2024.

[9] Stefanie Spancken and Leane Meyer, ‘ECHR Holds Landmark Hearing in Its Largest and First Ever Climate Change Case’ (Lexology, 11 October 2023) <https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=79b32a59-36f0-40c0-a8c5-ea5cd2da20f7> accessed 15 January 2024.

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