Tennis match suspended over climate crisis protest 1:08

(CNN) -- The European Court of Human Rights will hear an "unprecedented" lawsuit filed by six young people against 32 European countries on Wednesday, accusing them of failing to address the man-made climate crisis.

The plaintiffs, Portuguese between the ages of 11 and 24, will argue that they are on the front lines of climate change and will ask the court to force these countries to quickly accelerate their actions on the issue.

It is the first climate case to be brought before the European Court of Human Rights and is the largest, out of a total of three climate lawsuits, that the court is hearing.

The stakes are high. A victory would force countries to rapidly increase their climate targets and would also give a major boost to other climate demands around the world, especially those that argue that countries have human rights obligations to protect people from the climate crisis.

However, if the court rules against the plaintiffs, it could prove detrimental to other climate claims.

"It's a true David and Goliath case, unprecedented in its scale (and) potential impacts," said Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of the Global Legal Action Network, or GLAN, which has supported the plaintiffs' case.


"Never before have so many states had to defend themselves anywhere in the world," he told CNN.

Deadly wildfires

The road to Wednesday's hearing began six years ago. "It all started in 2017 with the fires," said Catarina Mota, one of the plaintiffs.

Devastating forest fires burned 500,000 hectares of Portugal and killed more than 100 people that year. As the fires advanced toward where Mota lived, his school and others in the area were closed. "Smoke was everywhere," he told CNN.

The disaster catalyzed demand. Mota began talking to her friend, and now fellow claimant, Cláudia Duarte Agostinho, and with the help of GLAN, they gathered four more claimants, all affected by the 2017 fires.

A firefighter battles the blaze after wildfires claimed dozens of lives on June 19, 2017 near Pedrogao Grande in the district of Leiria, Portugal. (Pablo Blázquez Domínguez/Getty Images)

A woman reacts to flames approaching her home after a forest fire claimed dozens of lives on June 19, 2017 in a village near Pedrogao Grande, in the district of Leiria, Portugal. (Pablo Blázquez Domínguez/Getty Images)

While the claim arose in the wake of the fires, climate change continues to affect their lives, the group argues, particularly the fierce heatwaves Portugal regularly experiences. They say these periods make it difficult to go outside, focus on schoolwork, sleep and, for some, even breathe, in addition to the impacts on their mental health.

"This makes us worry about our future. How can we not be afraid," said plaintiff André dos Santos Oliviera, 15.

"As a legally binding treaty"

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2020 and relied heavily on crowdfunding, was fast-tracked by the European Court of Human Rights due to the urgency of the matter and the large number of defendants.

On Wednesday, the plaintiffs will argue that failing to address the accelerating climate crisis is violating their human rights, including their right to life and family life, to be free from inhumane treatment and not to be discriminated against on the basis of age.

They ask the court to rule that countries fueling the climate crisis have an obligation to protect not only their own citizens but also those outside their borders.

Their demand is that the 32 countries, which include the 27 European Union countries plus Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom, drastically reduce planet-warming pollution and also force companies based within their borders to reduce emissions throughout their supply chain.

For their part, the defendant countries have asserted in written submissions that none of the plaintiffs has demonstrated that they have suffered serious harm as a result of climate change.

The government of Greece — a country that has just experienced a deadly summer of heat, fires and storms — said in its response: "The effects of climate change recorded so far do not appear to directly affect human life or health."

Four of the six plaintiffs: Martim Duarte, 17; Cláudia Duarte, 21; Mariana Duarte, 8 years old and Catarina Mota, 20 years old. (Courtesy of Marcelo Engenheiro)

Several things could happen with the demand.

The court could dismiss it on procedural grounds or decide that it does not have jurisdiction to pursue it.

If it clears procedural hurdles, the court could rule that states have no human rights obligations when it comes to climate change. "That could be very damaging to other similar cases," said Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

Or the court could rule in favor of the plaintiffs. The ruling "would act as a legally binding treaty," Cuinn told CNN, forcing all 32 countries to accelerate climate action.

"This could be an extremely important decision that inspires more climate cases across Europe and perhaps many other regions," Gerrard told CNN.

The lawsuit is the largest of three claims before the court, all of which concern countries' obligations to their citizens when it comes to climate change.

The other two were brought before the court in March. One was brought by more than 2,000 older women in Switzerland, who claimed that heatwaves fueled by climate change undermined their health and quality of life, and the other by a French mayor who claimed that France's lack of action on climate change violated their human rights.

It's unclear whether the courts will rule on all the claims together, but the timeframe between the hearing and sentencing is typically 9 to 18 months, said Gerry Liston, GLAN's senior attorney.

The rise of climate litigation

As extreme weather conditions worsen, climate litigation is proving to be an increasingly popular tool for trying to force climate action, especially as the world's nations have not done enough to reduce pollution and avoid catastrophic levels of warming.

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Even if current climate policies are met, the world is still on track to reach warming of more than 2.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. The planet has already warmed by about 1.2 degrees and the impacts are clear. This year alone has seen unprecedented heat waves, forest fires and flooding.

Countries are currently doing the bare minimum, GLAN's Liston said, and if all countries do the same, "we will continue on this totally catastrophic trajectory."

That's why people go to court. According to the Sabin Center, there are more than 2,400 climate demands worldwide, with more being added every week.

Climate litigation is an important tool, said Catherine Higham, coordinator of the World Laws on Climate Change project at the London School of Economics. "But I think it's just one piece of the puzzle," he told CNN.

Continued advocacy and climate conferences, such as the upcoming United Nations COP28 summit in Dubai, are also vital, he added.

For the Portuguese plaintiffs, there will be an anxious wait for the court's ruling. Even if the claim doesn't go their way, Mota said, at least there will be people who will sit back and pay attention.

Still, he added, "we long for a positive outcome."

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