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Is inaction on climate change a human rights violation?

Climate change
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Children joined experts at a PACE parliamentary hearing to demand urgent action on climate change from European governments – and to argue that continued inaction would be a violation of their right to a healthy environment.

The virtual joint hearing, organised by PACE’s Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development in the framework of forthcoming reports by Jennifer De Temmerman (France, ALDE) and Simon Moutquin (Belgium, SOC), also looked at what more the Council of Europe could do to anchor a right to a healthy environment.

Nathan Méténier, a member of a youth consultative group set up to advise the UN Secretary General, said young people were already facing the consequences of inaction on the climate crisis, and urged that the rights of future generations should be taken into account: “We need a new way of doing democracy which includes inter-generational dialogue. It’s our future, and we should have a say.” The movement begun by Greta Thunberg had had a huge impact, he said, but youth groups working to protect the planet needed greater funding, as well as a greater presence in international bodies.

A group of young elected “eco-delegates” from the Jeanne d’Arc High School in Paris also outlined to parliamentarians the action they were taking in their own schools, as well as their fears for the future. “We think things are not going fast enough in the fight against climate change,” said 15-year-old Nele. “There’s a generalised indifference and despite the COP-21 commitments, temperatures continue to increase. We don’t want any more decisions that create delay. There’s an alarm going off – and action is needed now.” Eugenie, another “eco-delegate”, spoke about the impact of climate marches while a third, Aida, said their aim was to “get everyone to work hand-in-hand to combat the climate crisis”.

Najib Benarafa, a science teacher at Jeanne d’Arc High School, said it wasn’t possible to keep postponing concrete action. “Schools can be labs for green transition – young people are starting to build the future in their schools, as catalysts for change, but they need to see concrete change at a higher level too.” Children were looking for tangible change: “There’s a disconnect between the desire for something to be done, and the actual outcome.”

Catherine Le Bris, a specialist in international law for France’s CNRS, gave an overview of environmental court cases from around the world and pointed out that traditional rights protected individuals, rather than collective groups, and were usually time-limited to the present. She called for a new category of rights, the “rights of humanity” or “rights of humankind” – such as a right to pure air – which would be both global and long-term, protecting all individuals currently living as well as future generations.

Dr David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on the Environment, said Europe was now falling behind other regions on advancing a right to a healthy environment. PACE had first called for this right 21 years ago – but it had been rejected by ministers. While the Strasbourg Court had made “green” interpretations of existing rights, these were inadequate today, when the scope and severity of today’s climate crisis was having such a huge impact on human rights. It was time for change, he said, and Europe needed to be at the forefront of demands for clean air, safe and sufficient water, sustainably produced food, healthy ecosystems and biodiversity.