UN Committee Denies Climate Change Petition From Greta Thunberg and World Youth Activists

Some of the youth petitioners who appealed to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

In a “stunning” and upsetting decision, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child refused to hear the case of 16 youth from around the world who are threatened by the climate crisis.

The international human rights body is tasked with protecting children’s rights. As such, a joint petition from youth including Greta Thunberg argued that five G20 countries — Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey — are violating their rights to life, health, and culture under the Convention on the Rights of the Child by failing to curb greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would keep global temperature increases below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The petition called out five countries that have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but that continue to pollute and use fossil fuels. By doing so, they are not taking action to fulfill their obligations under the Convention to provide for the health and well-being of children as the climate crisis intensifies, Earthjustice reported.

In their petition, the youth requested action, not money. They implored the UN body to make specific recommendations to the five nations about how they can meet their treaty obligations. These included changing their laws in response to climate change and applying more diplomatic pressure on big polluters like the U.S. and China. Every country except the U.S. has ratified the Convention.

The 1.5°C target was set by climate scientists in the historic Paris Agreement. According to the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, successful limiting of temperature increases will mean “our world will suffer less negative impacts on intensity and frequency of extreme events, on resources, ecosystems, biodiversity, food security, cities, tourism and carbon removal.”

The young petitioners, the self-dubbed “Children vs. the Climate Crisis,” hail from 12 different nations ranging from the tiny, almost-sea-level-height Marshall Islands to the behemoth fossil fuel-guzzling U.S. They all reiterate that they, children, should not be taking up this fight. Instead, they should be enjoying their teenage years and not wondering what the next decades could bring, French climate activist Iris Duquesne, 18, told EcoWatch. Despite their diverse origin stories and unique reasons for protesting, their message is unified: to save the future, severe and swift action is needed now.

“The truth is that I’m doing this because I feel like I haven’t been left a choice and this is the only way for me to not feel guilty,” Duquesne told EcoWatch. “The shame of having the possibility to do something and not doing it is too big. This is the main motivation for all youth climate activists, this and anger. Anger to feel left behind, not listened to and simply left alone.”

The youth are represented by human rights and environmental lawyers from Hausfeld and Earthjustice. The Committee’s decision, delivered Oct. 11, “delivered a rebuke to young people around the world who are demanding immediate action on the climate crisis,” a statement by Hausfeld said. “In dismissing the case, the Committee told children that climate change is a dire global emergency, but the UN’s doors are closed to them.”

The Committee has instructed the youth to each file claims in the five countries, only returning to the UN after they’ve lost in national courts. Their attorneys warn that this process would create years of procedural delays and that it sends this message to the children: “You’re on your own.”

“I feel angry,” Duquesne told EcoWatch. “Governments and officials say they care, but nothing is ever being done to secure a safer future for us. Our livelihoods and integrity are directly impacted, yet nobody listens to us. It is very very scary.”

“For petitioner Litokne Kabua (18) and other children from the Marshall Islands in the south Pacific, there is simply no time to file a climate change case in every state in the world that is fueling global warming: if emissions are not immediately reduced, the Marshall Islands will likely be submerged in the ocean within the children’s lifetime,” the Hausfeld statement said. This makes fighting climate change not just an environmental issue, but also a social justice issue.

Despite the disappointing outcome, the youth did win on some of the most challenging legal issues dealing with climate litigation. The Committee accepted their arguments that states are legally responsible for the harmful effects of emissions originating in their territory on children outside their borders. Moreover, the fact that all states are causing climate change, the Committee held, does not absolve states of individual responsibility to reduce their own share of emissions. The Committee also found that the youth are victims of foreseeable threats to their rights to life, health, and culture. These findings could prove important in future climate litigation.

Despite this legal victory, the procedural loss requiring them to bring their cases first in national courts is a big blow. Their attorneys claim there are “tomes of case law and expert evidence showing that none of those cases would succeed.” In effect, their attorneys argue, the Committee instructed the youth to squander years waiting for inevitable dismissal, and time is running out.

“I have no doubt this judgment will haunt the Committee in the future,” said petitioner Alexandria Villaseñor, 16. “When the climate disasters are even more severe than they are now, the Committee will severely regret not doing the right thing when they had the chance. Children are increasingly on the frontlines of the climate crisis, accounting for over 80% of climate-related deaths. Yet again, the adults have failed to protect us.”

Tiffany Duong is a writer, explorer and motivational speaker. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. As a contributing reporter at EcoWatch, she gives voice to what’s happening in the natural world. Her mission is to inspire meaningful action and lasting change. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @tiffmakeswaves.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter