Elisabeth Stern was born in rural northeastern Switzerland in the 1940s in the shadow of huge glaciers.
“I grew up a little bit like Heidi,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to the children’s fictional character. “I was actually herding goats there.”
Over the years, those alpine blocks of stone and ice have been melting rapidly — one named Pizol alone has lost at least 80 percent of its volume since 2006 as global temperatures have steadily risen.
Stern sensed something was off, but only began to make the connections when she went on a study trip to Zimbabwe in the early 1990s, where she noticed a drop in rainfall.
Climate change gained growing public interest at the time because of a major international conference in Rio de Janeiro – the UN Conference on Environment and Development, or the so-called Earth Summit.
Although she has spent most of her professional life as a cultural anthropologist, Stern decided to become involved in environmental advocacy upon her return to Switzerland.
She worked in a green financial start-up by day and was immersed in the peace, feminist and anti-nuclear movements in her spare time.
She retired at 70, which only gave her more time to campaign.
Stern was involved in anti-fracking groups, where she was warmly welcomed by young activists.
“They treated me like an elderly person – not in the ‘Ahh, do you have email?’ but actually as a fully competent person.”
But when she joined an association of older Swiss women called KlimaSeniorinnen, meaning Swiss Climate Seniors, she was thrilled to meet people her own age with similar values.
“I absolutely loved them. They may be weak, some of them, in their bodies, but so fit in their heads and so committed to something outside of themselves,” she said.
At the time, the KlimaSeniorinnen had filed a lawsuit against the Swiss government, which was accused of violating their human rights by not doing enough to fight global climate change by reducing domestic carbon emissions.
The group focuses on climate campaigns. The 2,038 members bring the case, all of whom are over the age of 64. Four other women, over the age of 80, are involved in the case as individual plaintiffs.
“It was a revelation to me that you can actually take our state to court for not keeping its word,” said Stern. “We had signed the Paris Agreement, but here we were heading for 3°C global warming. I’ve been saying the same thing for 35 years, but little has changed. If you take someone to court, it might put a different kind of pressure on you.”
Having failed to get the Swiss courts to consider their arguments, the KlimaSenniorinnen escalated their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
And at the end of March, Stern and other members of the association’s board will make the short train journey from Switzerland to Strasbourg, France, where their legal team, supported by Greenpeace Switzerland, will finally address their concerns at a public hearing.
The number of climate change lawsuits around the world is on the rise, but this will be the first lawsuit to be heard in the influential European court.
The KlimaSeniorinnen women have half a day to argue their complex case in court and have submitted a dossier of scientific evidence outlining the effects of climate change on people’s health – showing why the elderly and women are particularly vulnerable.
Delta Merner, who leads the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States, said the research clearly shows that increased heat from climate change poses a growing threat to human health and that action is now needed to address drastically reduce emissions. to avoid larger and foreseeable effects”.
Although Switzerland has targets to reduce national emissions, the KlimaSeniorinnen believe these are too weak and want Bern to take much stronger measures, especially over the next ten years.
In court, their legal team will argue that Switzerland has violated Articles two and eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect the right to life and the right to respect for private and family life.
“It is not only a negative obligation for the state to refrain from violating human rights,” says Cordelia Bähr, a lawyer at the Zurich-based law firm Ettwein who represents the KlimaSeniorinnen, “but also a positive obligation to protect human rights .”
Lawyers will also refer to a series of recent rulings in the Netherlands, Germany and France in which courts ruled that governments were not doing enough to reduce emissions and ordered them to act more quickly.
“If the European Court of Human Rights were to say that there is no violation of human rights, it would also say that the decisions of the national courts in these cases were wrong, and what kind of signal would that send?” Bahr said.
In its response to the lawsuit, Switzerland does not deny that climate change is real and can affect human health.
But it argues that the emissions cannot be directly linked to older women’s health, and argues that existing targets are sufficient. Action on climate change, it says, is ultimately a matter for politicians to deal with.
Whether the case succeeds depends on a panel of 17 senior judges, who are also hearing another climate change case against the government of France on the same day.
In that case, Damien Carême, the former mayor of Grande-Synthe in France, argues that the French authorities have not done everything in their power to reduce emissions – which violates his human rights.
“The scientific link between climate change and increased heat waves is very robust, but I don’t think climate change impacts are really being explored here,” Merner said.
“Governments need to understand that they can and must act now… to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The Pizol Glacier under whose shadow Stern played as a little girl is now almost completely gone, and a funeral service was held to mourn over it a few years ago.
But while she admits being involved in an expensive and uncertain court case is “not a Sunday picnic,” Stern is happy to have her day in court.
“I’m thrilled that it’s finally here. It is the first time that Strasbourg decides ‘Is there a link between climate change and human rights?’. It really feels like a historic moment to me.”
At the time of publication, Swiss authorities had not yet responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.