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Six young activists suing 32 countries for failing to address climate change

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A group young people are suing the governments of 32 countries for violating their human rights by failing to address human-caused climate change. Six activists from Portugal, aged between 11 and 24, were at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) this week in Strasbourg, France, what the latest and largest instance of campaigners hauling governments to court for over the climate.

Arguing that their rights to life and privacy without discrimination are being violated, the accusers hope a favorable ruling will compel governments to accelerate efforts to tackle global warming.

"We've put forward evidence to show that it's within the power of states to do vastly more to adjust their emissions, and they are choosing not do it," lawyer Gerry Liston told The Associated Press at the start of a day-long hearing Wednesday.

Europe Climate Lawsuit
Young Portuguese climate activists protest outside the European Court of Human Rights, where they are accusing 32 governments of violating their human rights Jean-Francois Badias / AP

Legal teams representing the 32 countries named in the suit, which include the U.K., Switzerland, Norway, Russia and Turkey, have questioned the grounds for the lawsuit and the claim that the group of people who brought the case are victims of climate change.

While acknowledging the importance of climate change in an abstract, lawyers for the countries said the young activists' fight did not belong in front of the European court.

British lawyer Sudhanshu Swaroop, who is representing the U.K. in the case, said as it is Portuguese citizens and residents behind the lawsuit, it should be handled by courts in Lisbon.

To be successful, the accusers will need to convince judges they have been sufficiently affected to be considered victims. The group will also need to prove to the court that governments have a legal duty to make ensure global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) on average since pre-industrial times in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Their move to file a complaint with the Strasbourg-based court was sparked by the devastating wildfires that struck Portugal in 2017, killing more than 100 people and charring swathes of the country.

Europe Climate Lawsuit
Sofia Oliveira, center, smiles to her brother Andre as they arrive at the European Court of Human Rights, where they are accusing 32 European governments of violating their human rights. Jean-Francois Badias / AP

Until now, the court's environmental decisions have not covered global warming, but they have handled cases involving natural disasters and industrial pollution.

Activists are increasingly turning to courts to force greater efforts by governments to tackle climate change. In August, a Montana court ruled after a first-of-its-kind trial in the U.S. in favor of a group of young activists who accused state agencies of violating their rights to a clean environment.

On a more individual level, a mother in London has continued campaigning for the British capital to be legally compelled to clean up its air after her young daughter's death was blamed by a coroner on air pollution. It was the first time pollution was ever listed as a cause of death in the U.K.

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