Thursday, June 8, 2023

Why 2,000 Women Just Took Switzerland to Court Over Climate Change


They’re called Senior Women for Climate Protection, and they’re not backing down.

More than 2,000 senior women are standing up to the Swiss government regarding climate crisis inaction.

Like much of the world, in Switzerland, summer heat waves are getting lengthier, more intense, and more frequent. In fact, last year, research suggested that because of the climate crisis, extreme heatwaves could increase by up to nearly 8-fold by the end of the century in the country’s major cities. 

For many people, this information signals difficult times on the horizon. After all, heat waves increase the risk of serious illness and even death, especially for vulnerable people. And that’s why more than 2,000 Swiss women — who are calling themselves Senior Women for Climate Protection — are taking a stand, and suing the government for putting their lives at risk by failing to reduce Switzerland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Senior Women for Climate Protection vs. the Swiss Government 

Last month, SW(or KlimaSeniorinnen, in German), which consists of more than 2,000 women aged over 63, appeared before the European Court of Human Rights to argue that the Swiss government was violating their human rights by failing to reduce emissions. 

senior couple walks a paris street
Seniors say heatwaves interfere with their right to life and health. Photo Courtesy Behzad Ghaffarian on Unsplash

In particular, the group — which has been campaigning on this issue since its inaugural meeting in 2016 — stated that the heatwaves caused by rising emissions were interfering with “their right to life and health,” states Human Rights Watch. It’s a landmark lawsuit, as the European Court has never decided upon a case that relates to the climate crisis. 

In order to help the decision, the women had to provide their medical records to the Court. “Some people say, why are you complaining, you’re going to die anyway,” campaigner Elisabeth Stern told the BBC. “But we don’t want to die just because our Swiss government has not been successful in coming up with a decent climate policy.”

Are women more at risk from heat waves?

According to the Senior Women for Climate Protection, “older women are particularly susceptible to intense and frequent heat waves.” This is not to say that others do not suffer as well, but they are right: the research suggests that women are especially vulnerable to extreme heat events.

In 2019, one study published in the National Library of Medicine found that elderly women were at higher risk after heatwaves than men, but also, that women, in general, were more vulnerable. According to one professor of exercise physiology, Hein Daanen, this may be because female bodies do not lose heat as efficiently as male bodies.

Senior Women for Climate Protection member Elisabeth Stern
Senior Women for Climate Protection member Elisabeth Stern. Photo Courtesy Greenpeace | Joel Hunn

“Roughly, elderly [people] sweat half the amount compared to youngsters and females half that of males,” he told the Guardian. There is much more research to be done, but other factors brought forward by researchers from the Netherlands and Germany included the fact that women are more likely to live alone. 

Last year, evidence indicates that heatwaves in South Asia also disproportionately impacted women. On top of harming their health, in this instance, it also seemingly increased the amount of unpaid labor they had to do throughout the home. 

“India alone is estimated to have around 42 million home-based workers, most of them women, but the real figures could be higher,” notes PreventionWeb, a platform that raises awareness of disaster risks. “Many of them juggle household chores and caring for children and older relatives and earning income. For them, heat waves have dealt a cruel double blow, affecting both their health and productivity.”

‘What’s at stake is a livable future’

There is hope that the Senior Women for Climate Protection’s lawsuit, which is currently under consideration, will help to set a new legal precedent.

And, ultimately, better climate policies will help everyone, not just women. After all, heat waves aren’t the only consequence of rising emissions, but also wildfires, droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events.

A New York woman finds relief from a heat wave in a street hydrant
A New York woman of color finds relief from a heat wave in a street hydrant, courtesy Dominic | Flickr

To really change the course of the future, experts note that we need to limit the rise of global temperature to below 1.5°C. According to the United Nations, it is possible, but only with critical, urgent action. 

“Scientific insights notwithstanding, Switzerland along with most other countries is not doing as much as is necessary to avert such disasters,” notes Senior Women for Climate Protection. 

“Because governments, through their inaction, violate basic rights, more and more people around the globe are taking them to court,” it continues. “What’s at stake is a livable future – without climate collapse.”

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