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.
It is not clear whether the petition is admissible. Ordinarily, complaints about states can only be brought by other states. Optional Protocol 3 (OP3) provides an avenue for the admissibility of a communication directly from a child petitioner if they can meet two requirements: has the respondent nation ratified OP3; and, have the complainants exhausted domestic remedies?
The first requirement has been met, as all five respondent nations have ratified OP3. The second requirement has not been met. The petition addresses their noncompliance with the second prerequisite by suggesting there are practical problems that prevent them from complying with the condition.
Each of the petitioners can point to reasons why they would not be able to pursue their complaints in their own countries. For example, petitioner Sacchi would not be able to challenge Argentina’s failure to use diplomatic means to protect her from US emissions in an Argentine court.
Petitioners Alexandria Villasenor and Carl Smith are able to point to several state and federal cases, e.g., Juliana vs US, in which the question of a child’s standing to bring such suits has not been established at the federal level. Standing has already been denied in some state courts.
Critics of the case point to the futility of it. They claim that even if the communication is taken up by the 18-member Committee there’s very little that they can do without needed enforcement authority.
Edentulism is a trait shared by many international agreements. Implementation of agreements like the Paris Accord and the CNRC relies on the goodwill of signatories to live up to their promises. In the end, many of the commitments are little more than hollow gestures.
Given that even a win for the petitioners will have little immediate or practical impact as the respondent nations are unlikely to act on any recommendations the CRC may make, the question bluntly becomes–why bother?
The meteoric rise of the youth climate movement is born of fear and frustration. If the mainstream climate-science community is accurate, the young are right to have these feelings. Surveys are consistently showing that the young do, in fact, suffer from climate anxiety because they won’t have the opportunities that the generations before them have had.
A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 86 percent of US teenagers believe what the world scientists have been saying are the causes, consequences, and needed responses to the Globe’s continued warming. Their concerns are both science and sensory based in that they see evidence almost daily of what the experts are telling us is going to happen as the planet heats up. Youth around the world share these same fears.
Unlike many adults, youth around the world accept the straight-line relationship between acts and consequences. Moreover, the young are not nearly as burdened with partisan bias nor hesitancy about asking governments and international bodies to do their duties as they’ve sworn to.
Without constructive political action they are convinced Earth’s warming will cause the destruction of critical ecosystems and leave scarcity in its wake.
Climate advocates like Ms. Thunberg and Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) have tapped into and released a force that hadn’t been paid attention to by older generations. Not only is the force being tapped, but it’s being focused on constructive ways to effectuate change. The young should be commended not condemned for what they are doing.
Young climate hawks are looking to excise the portions of “the system” that have consistently failed to take the steps needed both to slow Earth’s warming and increase community resilience by adapting to changes in advance of their occurring. The petitioners in Sacchi, like the plaintiffs in Juliana, are looking to expand the enforceable rights of all individuals to a habitable environment. Their tender ages are being highlighted for strategic reasons.
The UN and most governments acknowledge, at least on paper, that they owe a higher degree of protection to the young. The UNCRC offers a new avenue of pursuit to establish a habitable environment as a human right, and the Sacchi petitioners are willing to travel down it.
Win or lose in the formal venues in which they’ve chosen to pursue protection, these cases and the publicity that surrounds them are winning in the court of public opinion. The petitions—whether filed with the CRC or a federal district court in Oregon—stimulate an open dialogue that has been missing for too long.
A year ago, there was no debate in Congress about climate change. Now conservative Republicans are being forced into a dialogue they had hoped to avoid about a problem they’ve been unwilling to admit even exists. The Democrats, for their part, have embraced climate change as a central theme of their 2020 political campaign.
Would landmark cases like Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade have ever been decided if the plaintiffs had been dissuaded by earlier attempts that failed? With each failed case, something more was learned; another step closer was taken.
The Juliana plaintiffs have been standing in a federal district court in Oregon for four years—waiting to find out if they even have the right to sue. Should they be denied standing, it cannot accurately be said they failed to move the needle closer to a sustainable future. The case has inspired others in and beyond the US to challenge their legal and legislative institutions to make a habitable environment a fundamental right.
The Sacchi petitioners are a diverse group, as are their stories of how climate change is affecting their lives and those of their communities. Their petition may be rejected, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have bothered.
Finally, consider the reaction of President Macron to France’s being named a respondent in the communication. Macron called the filing of the petition “very radical” and likely to “antagonize societies.” What does it say about the future of the planet when the truth is called radical?
In my experience, cultural change never comes about without antagonizing the keepers of the status quo. Make no mistake doing what’s necessary to combat climate change, rather than what is politically possible, requires nothing less than the cultural shift the youth climate movement has in its sights.