European lawsuits allege that climate inaction is causing psychological harm — and violating human rights.
As a 10th-grader growing up in Bergen, Norway, Mia Chamberlain dreaded when her science class lesson was on climate change. She’d often skip those classes or sneak out of the classroom. She couldn’t handle the fear when confronted with projections of scorching droughts and devastating floods — a future that she would have to live through, despite having grown up in a country as wealthy and safe as Norway. It was like the breathless, stomach-churning feeling of being broken up with, the moment a future vanishes. She couldn’t understand how her science teachers could discuss it with the same detached calm of instructing an algebra class. “It was like sitting through a horror movie that you really don’t want to be watching,” said Chamberlain, who is now 23.
Around that time, nearly 2 million barrels of oil and other fossil fuels were being drilled each day from Norway’s continental shelf, much of it sold elsewhere. Adults around her didn’t seem to understand Chamberlain’s frustration. She felt afraid, lonely, angry, anxious, and deeply unhappy — a tide of emotions she now describes as climate anxiety, a diagnosis that is receiving more and more attention from scientists, psychologists, and now, courts.
In 2016, she and five other young activists, along with Greenpeace, Young Friends of the Earth, and other environmental groups, filed a lawsuit against the Norwegian government over 10 licenses for oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters off Norway’s coast. According to the United Nations and the International Energy Agency, planned fossil fuel production efforts are already enough to topple the world’s climate over 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming. Given that, the lawsuit reasoned, any new drilling licenses would be unsustainable and violate the youths’ fundamental right to a livable future.
In doing so, Chamberlain and her compatriots joined frustrated citizens around the world who are increasingly resorting to suing their governments over fossil fuel emissions, with mixed victories. In one of the most successful cases, initiated in 2015 by the Dutch non-profit Urgenda, domestic courts ordered the Dutch government to reduce its carbon emissions faster, which it subsequently did.
Norwegian courts, however, rejected the Arctic drilling lawsuit, reasoning that it was uncertain how much fossil fuels — and resulting emissions — would be produced. Determined, the group took the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which has the power to order governments to change harmful policies. “I really, really think that Norway should be one of the first countries to stop their oil drilling,” Chamberlain said. “I really hope that this case can help take a step in that direction.”
Last December, the Strasbourg court asked Norway to respond to the charges — a significant step, given that the court throws 15 percent of cases out before reaching that point — making the lawsuit one of only three climate cases to have ever made it this far. That includes a case brought by a group of senior Swiss women and a lawsuit in which four Portuguese children and two young adults are suing 33 European governments over inadequate climate policies. What also makes the Arctic oil case remarkable is that, along with the Portuguese lawsuit, it cites climate anxiety alongside physical impacts to support its claims that the youths’ fundamental rights are breached by government policies.
Both cases use a nascent but growing body of research illustrating the severity and magnitude of climate anxiety among young generations. In one recent, landmark study, some 10,000 children and young people surveyed around the world reported strikingly high levels of psychological distress due to governments’ inaction on climate change — often to the extent that it interfered with their daily functioning.
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