University of Bern (Switzerland) Bernese researchers advise human rights court

How successfully can climate protection be promoted through legal channels? The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg will provide an answer to this question in the coming months. He is currently dealing with three climate cases – one of which concerns the lawsuit brought by the association KlimaSeniorinnen against Switzerland. The argument of the senior citizens: Switzerland’s climate policy is too lax. The state is thus violating the right of climate seniors to life and to respect for private and family life, and is therefore not fulfilling the duty of protection owed to them. In order to make a contribution to limiting global warming to an acceptable level, the federal government must decide on binding and significantly stricter climate targets and take more effective measures so that they are actually achieved.

In addition to well-known human rights experts, an interdisciplinary group of professors from the University of Bern got involved in the proceedings at the ECtHR – some of them are members of the Oeschger Center for Climate Research. On December 5, they jointly filed a so-called third-party intervention. In doing so, they provide the court with an up-to-date scientific assessment and support it with their specialist knowledge in reaching its verdict. “This case represents a great opportunity to answer legal questions of fundamental importance,” says Charlotte Blattner, who is coordinating and co-authoring the intervention of the Bernese researchers. She is a lawyer and senior assistant at the Institute for Public Law at the University of Bern.

Apparently, the European Court of Human Rights also sees it this way: the three climate cases were classified as having priority and forwarded to the Grand Chamber, which has 17 judges. This deals with cases that raise serious questions about the interpretation or application of the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Charlotte Blattner, the court will make important fundamental decisions in these cases on the question of whether and to what extent states are obliged to act preventively, i.e. to take positive measures to protect people from the threats and damage of climate change.

Reason for action: Elderly people particularly affected by heat waves

The members of the KlimaSeniorinnen are around 2,000 women of retirement age – including celebrities such as Christianne Brunner, former member of the Geneva National Council, or the Zurich historian Elisabeth Joris. The association was founded in 2016, shortly afterwards he filed a lawsuit, which was subsequently dismissed by all instances – including a complaint before the Federal Court in 2020. The argument of the plaintiffs: global warming leads to more and more intense heat waves. Because of the heat, people get sick and die prematurely. The population group most affected by the increasing heat waves are older people – especially women – because they suffer particularly badly from the heat and die particularly often from its effects.

Heat waves and their health consequences is the specialty of epidemiologist Ana Vicedo. Among other things, she caused a stir internationally with a study that showed that global warming is already responsible for every third heat-related death. She is currently working on a study on the consequences of the hot summer of 2022. Ana Vicedo is one of the Bernese researchers who took part in the third-party intervention on behalf of the ECtHR. “It is my job,” she explains, “to summarize the current knowledge about the susceptibility of old women to heat and to provide an objective view of this topic.”

The other members of the Bern research group also emphasize their role as independent experts. Thomas Stocker, President of the Oeschger Center, says: “In this intervention, we do not comment on the case or on the party motions or arguments, but we only offer the Court an assessment of the relevant questions from our respective areas of expertise.” This approach is comparable to the commitment of science in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There, too, the aim is to make the most reliable information based on the latest scientific knowledge available to decision-makers. At the IPCC, these are governments, at the ECtHR, judges.

Support in classifying new findings

Due to its interdisciplinary orientation, the Oeschger Center is particularly suitable for supporting the ECtHR in assessing facts on climate change and its consequences. Here, not only do natural scientists work together with social and economic scientists, but also legal scholars are involved. This proves to be a great strength in third-party interventions before the European Court of Human Rights. Lawyer Charlotte Blattner explains that it is challenging for a court to be able to assess the relevance of scientific principles. “We translate and classify facts into the previous case law of the ECtHR and show across disciplines which new findings are important for the assessment of climate cases.”

Incidentally, the Bernese researchers are not alone in their third-party intervention in the case of climate seniors versus Switzerland. In total, the ECtHR received over a dozen interventions, most of them from human rights experts. Among others, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, intervened. Two climate researchers from ETH Zurich have also spoken out. But none of the assessments submitted by the high court is as broadly based as the ten-page letter from Bern. Experts from the fields of ethics, epidemiology, climate science, economics, political science and law contributed to it.