Greta Thunberg and 15 other children are legally challenging world leaders for violating their children’s rights by failing to act on climate change. Sarah Harrop sat down with Human Rights Law specialist Dr Alison Bisset and Professor Chris Hilson, Director of the Reading Centre for Climate and Justice, to hear their views on this unusual case.

What were your first reactions to hearing about this legal challenge – is it anything to write home about?

Alison: I’m excited to see this, as are my students – it’s a compelling case because it’s brought by children. The Third Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child came into force in 2013 and it’s a new instrument with little previous action, so from a children’s rights perspective this is a landmark.

Chris:  In some ways this is ‘more of the same’ from a climate justice angle. We’ve already seen climate justice litigation from young people such as the Juliana v United States of America case, which has famously been impeded by the Trump administration. But on the other hand, this stands out because it’s taking place on the international law stage rather than within one particular country.

The two pronged approach that Greta Thunberg in particular is taking – the same individual simultaneously using both protest and the legal route to gain traction – is a first in this area.

Are the children likely to win?

Alison: It’s difficult. The five states named in the communication – Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey – have ratified the protocol. However, the children come from 12 states, some of which have not ratified it, and none of the petitioners is from Turkey, so there are huge jurisdictional issues to overcome. It seems likely that the case against Turkey will be inadmissible. 

Chris: Climate litigation (or quasi-litigation like this petition) often fails from a purely instrumental point of view in that claimants don’t often come away with what they have asked for. In this instance, the petition could fail at the first hurdle because the Convention requires them to have exhausted their remedies in their national courts first, which they may not all be able to show.

But even if the petition doesn’t proceed or legally ‘win’ in the end, it is still likely to deliver a publicity victory, and it’s another venue for making the argument to tackle climate change.

Alison: We should also consider that a joint statement has recently been issued calling for action on climate change by five human rights treaty bodies, including the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, so it would be politically awkward to reject it.

The children allege that the consequences of climate change are violating their rights to life, survival and development, and health and culture  – but states have a very wide margin of discretion on those last two.

Chris: If you look at what the children have actually asked for, it isn’t particularly hard hitting, but it could nevertheless create a political storm. It could get international attention and become a grand statement. Of course, how states respond is another matter: they could take the demands seriously or they could simply comply rather formalistically. 

How does this fit within the context of climate justice to date?

Chris: Many cases so far have been against countries which, historically, have had a much earlier industrial revolution. The UN’s Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) principle acknowledges that all states have a shared obligation to address the climate emergency but says that different states have different levels of responsibility when it comes to taking on the burden of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

As developing or emerging markets, Turkey, Argentina and Brazil are not traditional targets for climate justice claims.

In thinking about climate justice, it’s also worth pointing out that international human rights law doesn’t look to protect future generations, only those living in the present. So this also raises interesting rights questions for future generations and who represents them.

Have any climate justice cases been successful so far?

Chris: Yes, there have been a handful of cases. A case in Pakistan made history when a court accepted arguments that governmental failures to address climate change violated the petitioner’s rights. 

Then there is the 2015 Urgenda case – a world first – in which the Dutch government was forced to reassess their climate targets and take more effective action on climate change.

There have also been cases brought by vulnerable communities seeking compensation, but none have been successful. For example the people of Kivalina, Alaska made a claim against ExxonMobil for the destruction of their town by coastal flooding as a result of rising sea levels – but it was dismissed by the US district court on the grounds that climate change is a political rather than a legal issue.

Chris, this week you became Director of the Reading Centre for Climate and Justice, which was launched by Mary Robinson in 2018. Could you give us an update on what the Centre has been doing over the past year?

Chris: We’ve had a busy year. Our former director Professor Catriona MacKinnon launched a report and hosted an event on the ethics and issues around using geoengineering technology, such as Solar Radiation Management, to mitigate climate change. 

Catriona, Alex Arnall (Agriculture, Policy and Development) and Jamie Draper (one of our Leverhulme students) also went to an event at Lambeth Palace convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury on climate displacement and justice. At the local level, we’ve been involved in outreach activities including helping to plan a schools event on climate change with Wokingham Borough Council. 

Oddly enough I was recently invited to BAFTA to talk about climate justice to a group of TV soap script writers and editors to discuss the concept of climate justice and how they might introduce it into their storylines.

And students from our £1 million Leverhulme Doctoral Training Programme in Climate Justice are starting to finish on the programme now and go on to bigger things; it’s fantastic to have produced the next generation of climate justice experts and see them move into academia, policy work and further afield equipped with the knowledge and understanding to help develop just climate policies.

Find out more about the Reading Centre for Climate and Justice.

Dr Alison Bisset is Associate Professor in International Human Rights Law and her particular interests include Children’s Rights and International Judicial Cooperation.

 Professor Chris Hilson is Director of the Reading Centre for Climate and Justice. His research interests include Climate and Environmental Law and Policy and the use of law by social movements.