On the day Greta Thunberg gave her emotion-filled speech at the United Nation’s (UN) Climate Summit, another historic event involving the Swedish activist and 15 other youthful climate hawks—representing 12 countries–took place. The filing of the first-ever legal complaint about climate change to the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child. The communication is titled Sacchi et al. vs. Argentina, et al.
Like the plaintiffs in the case of Juliana vs. US, the young petitioners—all ranging in age between 8 and 17—are seeking to protect themselves and future generations from the harsh consequences of global climate change. Impacts like extreme droughts and rising sea levels that most of the world’s scientists have been warning of for decades; warnings that have gone mostly unheeded in terms of needed state actions.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands, home to three of the petitioners, formally declared a National Climate Crisis on September 30, 2019. A low lying archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean, portions of the Marshall Islands were the site of 67 nuclear weapons tests by the United States, including the 15-megaton Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test that produced significant fallout in the region.
Having survived those tests, the Marshall Islands now face the prospect of being uninhabitable by 2050—swallowed by the waters that have sustained its populations for hundreds of centuries. Its 29 atolls average only 6.5 feet above sea level.
The petition—or communication as it is termed—was filed with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (Committee or CRC) that was established under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The Committee monitors the implementation of the Convention that protects the human rights of children around the globe.
The convention was signed by every country in the world, save for the United States. Of the 196 signatories, 45 have agreed to the Third Optional Protocol, allowing children to petition the UN directly about treaty violations. The five respondent nations named in the communication—Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey—are among the 45. The named respondents are aware of the causes and consequences of global warming, emitters of greenhouse gases, and signatories of the Paris Accord.
The UN Committee on the Rights of Children is comprised of 18 independent experts elected by the states that oversee the operation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by its parties. When countries ratify the CRC, they accept that they:
- are bound by its clauses;
- have a duty to incorporate its provisions into their domestic laws;
- must subject themselves to the scrutiny and jurisdiction of the CRC.
The communication filed with the Committee is quite similar in content to the pleadings filed by the Juliana plaintiffs in the US Federal District Court for Oregon. It offers a science-based description of the causes of climate change and references some of the impacts, e.g., forest fires, lost food sources, insect-borne diseases, permanently inundated coastlands, more violent and frequent weather-related events, etc.
The communication is careful to point out that the consequences of Earth’s warming are being suffered now and states they will only get worse if nations don’t increase current efforts. It introduces the petitioners and describes specific harms they have already experienced:
In the Marshall Islands, Petitioner Ranton Anjain contracted dengue fever in 2019, now prevalent in the islands, and Petitioner David Ackley III contracted chikungunya, a new disease there.
In Cape Town, South Africa, drought has made Petitioner Ayakha Melithafa’s family, and 3.7 million other residents prepare for the day municipal water supplies run dry.
According to the communication, the respondent nations have contributed to the climate crisis with their past emissions and are failing to put themselves on a pathway consistent with keeping the climate’s temperature rise under 2.0 degrees Centigrade over the 21st century. The failure of the named respondents is essentially the failure of all nations, including the signatories on the Paris climate accord. The pledged reductions are inadequate to the task of achieving both the aspirational 1.5 degrees and the agreed-upon 2.0 degrees Celsius targets.
The cumulative sum of the respondents’ historical emissions shows that they are major emitters, responsible for a significant share of today’s concentration of GHGs in the atmos-phere. Each of the respondents ranks in the top 50 historical emitters since 1850, based on fossil fuel emissions: Germany ranks 5th, France 8th, Brazil 22nd, Argentina 29th, and Turkey 31st. When land-use, such as deforestation, is factored in, Brazil surpasses France in its historical share.
Establishing the reality of climate change and identifying actual harms suffered by the petitioners at the hands of the respondents by their delay in taking the steps necessary to decarbonize their economies are preludes to the central point of the petition. The communication alleges that the respondents have shifted the enormous burden and costs of climate change onto children and future generations.
The relief requested in the petition is a series of findings by the Committee. The primary finding being asked for is a declaration that climate change is a children’s rights crisis. Also requested are findings that the respondent nations have knowingly disregarded the science-based evidence of the causes, consequences, and remedial steps necessary to protect children everywhere from the ravages of climate change.
The petitioners are also asking the Committee to recommend to the respondent nations that they amend their laws and policies to make the best interests of the children a primary consideration when allocating the costs and burdens of climate change mitigation and adaptation. The petitioners are further requesting the Committee to encourage the respondents to provide for the direct access of children and their representatives to the decisionmaking process where they would have the right to express their views freely. MORE