The Portuguese plaintiffs, from left to right and top to bottom: André Oliveira, Catarina Mota, Cláudia Agostinho, Mariana Agostinho, Martim Agostinho and Sofia Oliveira Photos: Global Legal Action Network

The generational climate fight


Elderly statesmen got together at a virtual summit on climate change last Thursday, April 22, Earth Day. At the same time, middle-aged politicians under the auspices of Portugal’s current presidency of the Council of the European Union were having discussions about a provisional EU climate law on a 2030 emissions target. Young activists are not impressed; there’s still far too much talk and far too little action, they say.

US President Joe Biden has proposed pouring trillions of dollars into clean-energy technology, research and infrastructure. He faces fierce opposition in doing so from Republicans who are sticking with Donald Trump’s extraordinary decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord. They insist that any transition to clean energy would put the jobs of American oil, gas and coal workers “into the shredder”. Republicans have also been castigating China as the world’s No. 1 greenhouse gas polluter (America is the No.2).

As well intentioned as 78-year-old Joe Biden may be to place the US among the most ambitious nations in curbing climate change by pledging to cut fossil fuel emissions by 52% by 2030, he may not be around to see that through, certainly not as president.

Addressing an online meeting of a US House of Representatives committee on fossil fuel subsidies that coincided with the virtual summit, 18-year-old Greta Thunberg as usual did not mince her words. “It is the year 2021. The fact that we are still having this discussion and, even more, that we are still subsidising fossil fuels, directly or indirectly, using taxpayers’ money is a disgrace. It’s proof we have not understood the climate emergency at all,” she said.

The two-day summit briefly made the main headlines, which remain preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic and other current matters. To the mainstream media as well as politicians, the distant future is not as compelling as the here and now.

Among those keeping an eye on the EU’s intentions on combating the existential threat to humanity are the four Portuguese children and two young adults who have filed a climate change lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights against all 27 EU member states, plus Russia, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, the Ukraine and Turkey.

Aged between eight and 21, they claim that all 33 countries are breaching their human rights by failing to make deep and urgent emission cuts, and not adequately addressing contributions to emissions released beyond borders.

The plaintiffs have personally experienced the ravages of heat waves and wildfires caused by climate change in their homeland.

While supposedly protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, they say they fear for their future lives and livelihoods because of worsening climate change. The case they filed in September last year probably has a long way to go, but it has been granted priority and fast-tracked by the court in Strasbourg because of “the importance and urgency of the issues raised”.

This highly unusual court assurance has been greatly welcomed by the plaintiffs and the London-based barrister and international NGOs who are backing them. Their efforts are in harmony with many other court cases and public protests arranged by young climate activists around the world.

This is how Sweden’s Greta Thunberg put it to lawmakers in the US House of Representatives: “What I’m here to say is that, unlike you, my generation will not give up without a fight. And to be honest, I do not believe for a second that you will actually do this. The climate crisis doesn’t exist in the public debate today and since it doesn’t really exist and the general level of awareness is so absurdly low, you will still get away with continuing to contribute to the destruction of present and future living conditions. And I know I’m not the one who is supposed to ask questions here, but there is something I really do wonder. How long do you honestly believe that people in power like you will get away with it? How long do you think you can continue to ignore the climate crisis, the global aspect of equity and the historic emissions without being held accountable?

“You get away with it now, but sooner or later people are going to realise what you have been doing all this time. That’s inevitable. You still have time to do the right thing and save your legacy, but we know that time is not going to last for long. What happens then? We the young people are the ones who are going to write about you in history books. We are the ones who get to decide how you are remembered. So, my advice for you is to choose wisely…Thank you.”

Len Port is a journalist and author based in the Algarve. Follow Len’s reflections on current affairs in Portugal on his blog: