Defend the rights of children against global warming

IN A special report on climate change more than a decade ago, Time magazine warned: “Be worried. Be very worried because climate change is not some vague future problem. Today it is already damaging the planet at an alarming rate – the polar ice caps are melting faster than ever; more and more land is devastated by drought; rising waters drown low-lying communities; and even worse, global warming will lead to increased disease and human death among the world’s population old and young.

It is true that as the average temperature climbs, frequent and longer heat waves have led to an increase in mosquito populations in the tropics, which has greatly contributed to the spread of malaria, dengue fever and other insect-borne infections. Industrial and road pollution, detrimental to air quality, has caused lung conditions such as asthma and allergy attacks. Heavy downpours led to flooding and the biggest water quality problem.

Toxic Truths

Lately, two toxic truths have been reported by the World Health Organization (WHO):

1. Electronic waste affects the health of millions of children. The global e-waste industry employs and exposes children to over 1,000 harmful chemicals contained in e-waste, eg mercury, nickel, brominated flame retardants, etc. due to the fact that they absorb more pollutants relative to their size and are less able to discharge toxic substances from their young bodies. Health impacts on children related to e-waste include, but are not limited to, changes in lung function, DNA damage, impaired thyroid function, and increased risk later in life of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

2. Exposure to lead pollution causes irreparable brain damage in children. Sources of lead exposure in children include: low-grade recycling of lead-acid batteries, lead in water from use of leaded pipes, lead-based paints, lead in cosmetics and toys, etc.

3. In all of this, children around the world are suffering the most, with many equating the climate crisis with a child rights crisis.

Children have an indispensable but often overlooked role in the crisis. It infringes on many fundamental rights protected by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including: the right to life and development (art. 6), the right to the highest attainable standard of health achieved (art. 24), the right to education (art. 29.1) and the right to adequate living conditions (art. 27). Save the Children, Earth Guardians and other international NGOs call on governments to put the interests of minors and adolescents first, to involve them in decision-making and to take their proposals seriously.

historical costumes

In this regard, since the emergence of the Fridays for Future climate initiative three years ago, it has become clear to everyone that climate change is particularly important for children or young people. As adults, after all, they will face the worst consequences of global warming.

In recent years, minors have asserted their rights before the courts, tribunals or any legal authority available to them. In Alaska, 18-year-old Carl Smith and 15 other teenagers have filed a landmark complaint with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child accusing five countries of violating their rights as children by not doing enough to end the climate crisis and the threat it poses. to their future. Alaska’s temperature rise to a record 90 degrees has seen dead salmon floating in rivers, melting permafrost and eroding frozen shoreline near their villages. “No one knows what’s going on in rural Alaska, but as long as everyone speaks up and keeps talking about it, there is hope,” the young plaintiffs explained.

Some see the climate suit as a symbolic act on the big media stage. But really, such moves have media impact, especially with the upgraded technology available these days. Increasingly, the actions of young people influence attitudes in society and politics.

In Portugal, six children and young adults aged between 8 and 21 have filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg accusing 27 EU countries of faulty climate policies. Portugal has experienced extreme heat waves and devastating forest fires in recent years and, for young complainants, governments have failed to take appropriate action to tackle global warming, despite pledging to do so with the 2015 Paris climate agreement. In fact, forest fires in Portugal’s Leiria region left 110 dead and hundreds injured in the summer and fall of 2017. The threat denounced does not only concern the country’s beautiful ancient forests, but also the right to life of young people and respect for private and family life which are guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (arts. 2 and 8 ). As a typical procedure for each complaint filed, the court in Strasbourg asked the respondent governments to respond. Civil society organizations joined the proceedings as “third parties”, explaining and detailing the destructive effects of global warming on children’s rights.

In Oregon (USA), 21 minors and young adults have sued the US government in district court, claiming that the government’s uncontrolled exploitation of fossil fuels is exacerbating the climate crisis and therefore putting their future at risk. Using the United States’ “public trust doctrine”, they said the government must protect all natural resources such as water, air and soil for future generations.

The US Department of Justice wanted the case thrown out for lack of jurisdiction, but the plaintiffs argued it was the court’s role to demand that the government take action to eliminate pollutants that contribute to global warming . Ultimately, the presiding judge ordered the two parties to reach an agreement at a settlement conference.

children of the accusation

In Colombia, 25 young citizens filed a complaint against their government for failing to stop the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, a threat to their constitutionally guaranteed right to a healthy environment. Colombia’s Supreme Court has ordered the government to present an action plan to reduce deforestation and develop an International Pact for the Life of the Colombian Amazon.

In 2019, Fridays for Future co-founder Greta Thunberg, along with 15 other young people, filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice against five countries with high greenhouse gas emissions – France, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey – for violation of the plaintiffs’ human rights. as guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Governments have refused to allow the case to go to court on the grounds that the climate crisis requires “international aid”.

Regardless of the end results in the aforementioned cases, a basic pattern is evident. Young people are no longer simply accepting their country’s slow climate action. With the support of environmental lawyers and NGOs, young people have become “children of the prosecution”, said Martina Dase, Save the Children’s climate spokesperson.

As a young activist and now co-founder of the Guardians of the Earth, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez predicted in a speech he gave to the United Nations General Assembly at the age of 15: “We flood the streets and we let’s now flood the courts to show the world that a movement is rising and that our generation is leading this movement.”

Hopefully, the justice system everywhere will increasingly take responsibility for the legal protection of children from the disastrous effects of climate change.

Teresa H. Sadler