Children sue Austria for ‘failing to protect them’ against climate change

A group of twelve minors said children's rights are not taken into account in the current climate protection law in Austria - and have taken the matter to the country's highest court.

Children sue Austria for 'failing to protect them' against climate change
Overall view shows the village of Semmering and the artificially snowed practice area of the Ski school in the wintersport resort Zauberberg im Semmering, Lower Austria, on January 08, 2023. (Photo by Alex HALADA / AFP)

Twelve minors on Tuesday filed a legal challenge with Austria’s top court accusing the government of failing to revise an “inadequate” climate protection law, saying it was not sufficiently protecting their constitutional rights.

A growing number of organisations and individuals around the world have turned to the courts to challenge what they see as government inaction on preventing climate change.

The Austrian lawsuit, the first of its kind in the nation, claims a law dating from 2011 is not ensuring that children are shielded from the consequences of global warming.

Austria has children’s rights enshrined in its constitution: “Every child has the right to the protection and care necessary for his or her well-being, to the best possible development and fulfilment, and to the protection of his or her interests, also from the point of view of intergenerational justice,” the document says”.

However, twelve Austrian minors have felt that this right has been violated and are bringing an application before the Constitutional Court to have provisions of the current Climate Protection Act rule unconstitutional, the newspaper Der Standard reported.

READ ALSO: Who are the climate protesters disrupting traffic in Vienna – and why?

“We have a climate protection law that does not deserve its name and is unconstitutional because it violates the rights of children”, the attorney Michaela Krömer, who is representing the group, told journalists on Tuesday.

“A law which lacks greenhouse gas reduction targets, clear responsibilities and an accountability mechanism clearly infringes these constitutional rights,” she added.

The climate lawsuit is supported by Fridays for Future and by the newly founded association Claw – Initiative for Climate Law, the report added.

‘We don’t see any progress’

The group, composed of minors from five to 16 years old, argue that the current law does not decrease greenhouse gas emissions and is unable to protect children from the life-threatening consequences of the climate crisis. 

“We take to the streets; we demonstrate, we strike. And yet we are not heard. We don’t see any progress, so now we are going to court.”, said Smilla, a 15-year-old student from Lower Austria.

Krömer argues that according to the constitution, the well-being of children must also be protected for the sake of “intergenerational justice”, a concept also enshrined in the constitution. “Children thus have a right to an active protection from the consequences of the climate crisis.”

READ ALSO: ‘No one feels like skiing’: Lack of snow hits resorts in Austria and Switzerland

Since the climate protection law does not determine any reduction targets or accountability mechanism, the children’s constitutional rights were violated. Krömer spoke of the “current sham climate protection” turning the climate crisis into a children’s crisis. However, the difficulty in the case will be to prove that the children are “directly” affected by the Climate Change Law, a requirement for challenging unconstitutional laws in Austria.

So far, the highest court has been very strict in interpreting who is directly affected by laws or not. Technically speaking, the Climate Protection Act addresses the federal government and the Austrian provinces, so Krömer expects a challenging case.

Government reaction

Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler, of the Green party — the junior partner in Austria’s conservative-led coalition government — praised the “great commitment of young people to climate protection.”

“In our constitutional state, of course, everyone can always turn to the courts when it comes to the question of enforcing their rights,” she said in a statement.

“However, I see it as my responsibility to ensure that this is not necessary. And that’s exactly why I’m campaigning for a quick decision on the climate protection law.

“Of course, if I were solely responsible, we would already have one, but in a democracy you need a majority for that.”

Several lawsuits by Greenpeace and the Austrian activist group Global 2000 have also accused the conservative-led government of inaction in the face of climate change.

In 2021, an Austrian with multiple sclerosis sued the government in the European rights court for failing to protect the climate, saying global warming has worsened his condition. A ruling is still pending, A Fridays for Future spokeswoman said.

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Vienna museum tilts paintings to illustrate climate change threat

Gustav Klimt's well-known Attersee lake painting, among other works of art, tilted by Vienna's Leopold Museum to draw attention to how unchecked climate change could affect landscapes.

Vienna museum tilts paintings to illustrate climate change threat

Gustav Klimt’s well-known Attersee lake painting tilted by two degrees, Egon Schiele’s painting of a tree in late autumn rotated by five degrees. As part of the initiative “A Few Degrees More”, Vienna’s Leopold Museum has tilted 15 paintings by the number of degrees unchecked climate change could affect the landscapes depicted.

The initiative, launched on Wednesday, comes after climate activists poured black liquid over a glass screen protecting a Klimt piece at the museum. “We want to contribute to raise awareness of the dramatic consequences of the climate crisis,” museum director Hans-Peter Wipplinger said.

Developed together with the research network Climate Change Center Austria, the action runs until late June.

Wipplinger dismissed the November “attack” — one of a string of similar protests by activists in London, Rome and other cities to highlight the climate emergency — as “absolutely the wrong way” to raise awareness.

READ ALSO: Is Austria doing enough to protect children from the climate crisis?

Following the protest, the museum put more works behind glass screens, increased watches and introduced stricter controls at the entrance, he said. “But in the end, we can’t exclude this” from happening again, Wipplinger said, regretting the increased costs incurred by the measures — and the higher insurance premiums.

Sofie Skoven, an 18-year-old student from Denmark visiting Vienna with her class, said the sight of the tilted paintings “of beautiful places” made her sad.

“It makes you want to do something about it — it reminds you of what’s going to be lost,” she told AFP.

Another visitor, Joachim Burdack, was less impressed. “I think it trivialises climate change,” the 71-year-old German retiree told AFP. 

READ ALSO: What are the biggest threats facing Austria this year?

It was too easy to get used to the tilted works, he added.

The Leopold Museum, with its 6,000 artworks, houses one of the world’s most important collections of Austrian art, focusing on the second half of the nineteenth century and subsequent Modernism.