From advocacy to action: climate change litigation. A guide for public health professionals
|23 november 2023
Climate change is a public health emergency. It is the single biggest threat to global health, peace, and security, a crisis multiplier, and a significant driver of health inequalities. It also raises profound issues of human rights and dignity. The poor and vulnerable, who have contributed least to climate change, suffer the worst consequences of actions largely committed by rich and powerful nations. These actions directly contribute to unprecedented biodiversity loss, mass extinction of species, and disruption of ecosystems which are fundamental to our very lives and the health of our planet. At this critical juncture, when the intractable problems have fused into one common concern for the whole world, failure to act is unconscionably irresponsible.
In many areas of public health policy, legal action and litigation have delivered significant and long-lasting impacts. Examples include tobacco control, increasing access to treatments for HIV, and addressing air pollution. Litigation is a well-established part of public health’s advocacy toolbox. It is a strong domain of legal policy and practice in many countries, and increasingly in international courts and tribunals.
Recent years have seen a significant increase in climate change litigation to oblige governments and private sector polluters to address the climate crisis. Claimants advocate for declaratory judgements and court orders requiring governments or private sector polluters to take specific action or stop an ongoing course of action. Climate change litigation also creates opportunities for public scrutiny and debate by raising awareness of inaction or harm caused by governments or private sector polluters, and sparking wider community mobilisation for action
For example, in 2023 a group of elderly Swiss women took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), claiming that they are more susceptible to heat stress because of their age, and that the Swiss government was not doing enough to address climate change. Epidemiological evidence of the impact of heat stress on this group should be central to the Court’s conclusion (see KlimaSeniorinnen v Switzerland: national case summary and ECtHR case note).
Eco-anxiety is a growing area of concern and thus research into the impact of climate change on public health, particularly among children and young people. In 2020, six Portuguese youth filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights against 33 countries. Personal experiences documented include the inability to exercise or spend time outdoors during hot weather or wildfires; missing school days; being confronted with the dangerous or even deadly effects of wildfires in close surroundings; reduced sleep; feelings of fear and anxiety; reduced energy levels; and lack of faith in the future. The applicants also refer to the negative effects of air pollution and increased pollen in the atmosphere, affecting the health and well-being of those suffering from respiratory diseases such as asthma (see Duarte Agostinho and others v. Portugal and 32 other states).
To explore these issues from a public health perspective, since 2021 the Groningen Centre for Health Law (GCHL) has organised a series of webinars and workshops at public health conferences with the Faculty of Public Health (UK). Consultations included discussions with European public health organisations, including the European Public Health Association (EUPHA) and the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region (ASPHER). Global consultations included a survey facilitated by the Environmental Health Working Group of the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA). One suggestion arising was guidance for public health professionals interested in contributing research and testimony in climate litigation.
In November 2023 the Faculty of Public Health and Aletta published ‘From advocacy to action: climate change litigation. A guide for public health professionals.’ The Guide was launched at the 16th European Public Health Conference in Dublin. The Guide was endorsed and will be disseminated by the Faculty of Public Health (UK), the Global Network for Academic Public Health (GNAPH), EUPHA, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), Lancet Countdown, ASPHER, the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education, WFPHA and Aletta.
The public health professional mandate requires not only the development of robust science and evidence, but also robust meaningful action. The Guide makes a timely and important contribution to building the competence and capacity of public health professionals around climate change litigation, supporting strategic partnerships, and encouraging leadership to protect and promote the health of people and planet.