- On Monday, the United Nations hosted a Climate Action Summit in New York City to spur member nations to take action to curb climate change.
- At the event, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old behind the worldwide School Strike for Climate movement, told world leaders: "You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words."
- After that address, Thunberg joined 15 other youth activists at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to announce a formal legal complaint against Brazil, France, Germany, Argentina, and Turkey.
- The plaintiffs allege that these countries are violating their rights as children by failing to sufficiently address climate change.
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On Monday, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg and 15 other young people from around the world filed a legal complaint against five of the world’s biggest global carbon polluters.
The youth activists allege that those governments’ lack of action to combat climate change violates their rights as children.
The group — whose ages range from 8 to 17 — announced the complaint at the Headquarters of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in New York. The five countries named are Brazil, France, Germany, Argentina, and Turkey — some of the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas emitters.
Thunberg and her peers filed the complaint under the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which stipulates a set of inalienable rights for all children worldwide, including to life, health, and peace. The complaint alleges that accelerating climate change puts those rights at risk.
"Our homes are being swallowed by the ocean, the places where memories are made," 17-year-old plaintiff Carlos Manual, from the Pacific island nation of Palau, said during a press conference announcing the complaint. "I am standing in front of you because I care about my generation."
The complaint did not include the US and China, which produce the most greenhouse-gas emissions in the world, because those countries haven’t signed the section of the treaty that allows children to seek justice for potential violations.
The youth activists say the climate crisis is a violation of children’s rights
Before announcing the complaint, Thunberg kicked off the United Nations Climate Action Summit with an impassioned speech to world leaders.
"This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean," she said with tears in her eyes. "Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words."
Thunberg held the room in thrall as she chastised leaders for talking about "money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth" while people suffer.
"You are failing us," she said. "But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal."
The 16 youth petitioners behind the complaint come from Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, India, the Marshall Islands, Nigeria, Palau, South Africa, Sweden, Tunisia, and the United States.
The petitioners allege that the five named countries have knowingly contributed to the climate crisis, which threatens children’s lives with extreme weather, floods, wildfires, sea-level rise, the spread of mosquito-borne disease, and poor air quality.
The complaint also says climate change threatens indigenous groups and fosters mental health issues among children, including "climate anxiety and solastalgia — mourning the destruction of a cherished place."
The petitioners allege that the five named countries are not on track to meet their emissions goals under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. They argue that, by the time that the countries put forward those goals, it was clear their emissions already endangered children’s lives.
"It was clear then that every metric ton of CO2 that they emitted or permitted was adding to a crisis that transcends all national boundaries and threatens the rights of all children everywhere," the complaint says.
The youth petitioners are asking the five countries to change their climate policies.
"Thirty years ago, world leaders made a historic commitment to the world’s children by adopting the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Today, the world’s children are holding the world accountable to that commitment," Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, UNICEF’s deputy executive director, said in a press release. "We fully support children exercising their rights and taking a stand. Climate change will impact every single one of them. It’s no wonder they are uniting to fight back."
Now that the complaint has been officially filed, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child — composed of 18 human-rights experts — will assess the case. According to protocol, that committee will submit its views and any recommendations to each named country. The countries are then supposed to submit a response within six months.
Other young people have filed climate lawsuits across the globe
This UN complaint is the latest in a string of legal actions taken by children in response to the climate crisis.
A group of 21 kids and teenagers sued the US government in 2015, alleging that the government was violating their constitutional rights by contributing to climate change despite knowledge of its dangerous consequences. In that landmark case, known as Juliana v. United States, the plaintiffs say their generation has already suffered and will continue to suffer the consequences of climate change, including health problems, extreme weather, and water shortages.
Those 21 youth plaintiffs range in age from 12 to 23 and hail from 10 states. They aren’t asking for financial compensation; instead, they want the court to compel federal agencies to end policies that directly harm the environment (like subsidizing fossil-fuel extraction) and mandate government action that will cut down greenhouse-gas emissions.
Andrea Willingham/Our Chidren’s Trust
The Obama and Trump administrations both attempted to get the case thrown out numerous times. In the latest attempt, three Ninth Circuit federal judges heard arguments in June; those judges could decide to dismiss the case or allow it to go forward, though it’s unclear when they will issue a decision.
Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit behind the Juliana v. United States case, has also supported youth legal actions related to climate across all 50 US states.
Robin Loznak/Pool Photo/AP
In the Netherlands, meanwhile, an intergenerational environmental group won a lawsuit that led a court in the Hague to order the Dutch government to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020.
Similarly, Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of 25 young people and children last year, ordering the country’s government to curb Amazon deforestation. And in 2016, the Supreme Court of Pakistan allowed Rabab Ali, who was 7 years old at the time, to proceed with a public-interest petition alleging that the government violated constitutional rights through its use of fossil fuels.
Other youth-led legal actions are underway in Belgium, Uganda, and the Philippines. Courts in India and Norway have dismissed such cases, though plaintiffs have stated intentions to appeal.
French President Macron lashed out at Thunberg
If Thunberg and her peers’ legal complaint is successful, it could compel the five named countries to cooperate with other UN member nations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
"All the movements of our youth — or our not-so-young — are helpful," Macron said. "But they must now focus on those who are furthest away, those who are seeking to block the way."
Macron added that he didn’t think "the French government nor the German government, currently, were blocking the way."
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