“We hold a duty”: the elderly women taking legal action against Switzerland to urge for action on climate change.
The group of elderly women, mostly in their seventies, gracefully made their way up the mountain. Using their hiking poles to make noise on the hot rocks, they carefully navigated through unstable stones and helped each other cross slippery streams. Despite being aware of the potential dangers of the heat and physical exertion, they were determined not to let it restrict their lives.
“I am an avid mountain climber,” stated Pia Hollenstein, a 73-year-old woman. She brushed off my offered hand for assistance as she descended a large rock. “I am capable.”
The group known as KlimaSeniorinnen, or senior climate women, in Switzerland may not be the first to come to mind when discussing those leading the charge in the climate crisis. Despite living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the 2,400 members of this group are of an older age, with the youngest being 64, and will only experience a small portion of the severe weather events that their children and grandchildren will face.
However, these retired individuals are among the most passionate advocates for a sustainable future. They have taken legal action against the Swiss government in the highest court in Europe, arguing that their human rights are being violated by inadequate policies that fail to mitigate the effects of climate change. Their case, which has the potential to set a precedent for courts throughout the continent, is based on two key points: the increasing severity of heatwaves due to burning fossil fuels, and the disproportionate impact on women, especially elderly women, who are more vulnerable to heat-related deaths.
Hollenstein, a retired nurse and former member of parliament for the Green party, who now serves on the board of KlimaSeniorinnen, shared that she initially believed Swiss politics to be hopeless when she was invited to join. However, she now sees it as a crucial tool for change.
On a Monday morning in August, I joined Hollenstein and several of her co-plaintiffs for a hike around the Göschener lake in the Alps. High in the mountains – a core part of Switzerland’s identity and the bedrock of its tourism and energy sectors – we looked out at breathtaking scenery, alpine wildlife and a hydroelectric dam. The women had chosen the spot to show what would be lost as the glacier melts.
The weather was not within their control. On the day in question, researchers in Switzerland discovered that the zero-degree line, which marks the point at which temperatures reach freezing, had reached its highest point yet. Two days prior, the national weather service had issued heat advisories for a majority of the country. A popular newspaper featured an interview with a meteorologist discussing the weather warnings. On its cover, it cautioned: “This is only the beginning of the heatwaves.”
The KlimaSeniorinnen were aware of the recent news, but it didn’t deter them. They brought water bottles, hiking poles, and appropriate footwear. Beatrice Braun, an artist, mentioned that she had personally knitted her colorful hiking socks. The women were conscious of their physical capabilities, but they expressed a preference for the refreshing mountain air over the oppressive heat of the city. Only occasionally did they feel uneasy due to the sun’s warmth and the difficulty of the hike. “I’m experiencing the same issue as the glacier,” Annemarie Ulmi-Klieber laughed as she wiped sweat from her face. “I’m melting.”
Medical professionals caution that heat is a significantly underestimated danger. During hot weather, individuals may suddenly collapse while working or spending time outside. Additionally, a large number of fatalities occur in nursing homes and hospitals, as the elderly and medically compromised are especially vulnerable to the effects of extreme temperatures. In fact, data shows that heat caused an additional 70,000 deaths in Europe in the previous year, and with this year being the hottest on record, the number of deaths may be even higher.
According to Ana Vicedo-Cabrera, head of the climate and health department at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Berne, current research shows that heat poses a particular risk to older women. The exact reasons for this vulnerability are not yet fully understood, but potential explanations include changes in the cardiovascular system during menopause and the tendency for older women to be more physically active than men. She presented this information to the court as a summary of the current scientific understanding.
The KlimaSeniorinnen case is a strategic move that was initially suggested by Greenpeace activists ten years ago. It addresses a common challenge faced in climate litigation worldwide – the fact that the effects of the climate crisis impact everyone instead of just one individual or group. This makes it difficult for courts to handle the influx of cases against major polluting companies.
The Swiss legal team required a specific demographic – the smaller, the better – to make the case that their right to life was being infringed upon by increasing temperatures, and that they were disproportionately impacted. Research from various countries has revealed that heat has a greater impact on women and older individuals. Vicedo-Cabrera and her team discovered that elderly women in Switzerland had the highest mortality rates due to heat in the summer of 2022. They determined that 60% of these deaths could have been prevented in a world without the climate crisis.
As I climbed the hills of the Swiss Alps, trying to keep up with women who were twice my age, I was taken aback to learn that the KlimaSeniorinnen had not pursued the case for their own advantage. Instead, they were considering individuals in my age group.
Hollenstein stated that our generation has greatly contributed to the destruction of the climate and that we have a responsibility to take action. He believes that it would benefit everyone if we were able to effectively encourage Switzerland to do more to combat this issue.
The KlimaSeniorinnen have appealed their case to the European court of human rights after facing multiple setbacks in local and national courts due to procedural issues. This will be the first time the court addresses government actions related to climate change and will also consider similar cases from a French mayor and several Portuguese teenagers in early 2021. These rulings will set a precedent for potential future cases in other countries if European governments fail to comply.
Charlotte Blattner, a researcher at the University of Berne who specialises in climate law, said experts were hopeful that the process would enshrine milestones that nudged governments into more stringent climate policy through human rights guarantees. Still, she said, “the chances that the KlimaSeniorinnen will win this case on all grounds is very unlikely”.
According to the Swiss government’s statement to the court, it is acceptable for citizens to urge states to take action against global warming. However, the European Convention on Human Rights was not intended to be the platform for determining national policies on this issue. The responsibility of defining and selecting measures to address global warming lies with the Swiss government, parliament, and people.
The government also contested the argument put forth in the case, denying that women who have reached retirement age are inherently more vulnerable to heatwaves.
Not all of the KlimaSeniorinnen will live long enough to see the outcome of their struggle – some members have already died and even a victory in Strasbourg does not guarantee change in policy. If they win the court case, they say they will pressure the government to come up with a plan to meet its targets, which will then be voted on in a referendum. The Swiss public voted through a target of net zero emissions by 2050 in a referendum in June but rejected a package of concrete policies to cut pollution in 2021.
However, for the women involved, the opportunity to present their case to the 17 judges in the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is a significant achievement that they could never have imagined as children. All of them were born and some even reached adulthood during a time when women in Switzerland were not allowed to vote. They expressed their appreciation for being able to utilize the available resources to their advantage.
Verena Steiner, a former architect who joined the group last year, expressed how these women have truly motivated her. She has been conscious about climate change for four decades, but it was only recently that she became more involved.
The group reported that they were gaining more recognition and respect. In the past, some individuals had disregarded them as mere “old wives”, but now it is difficult to ignore the severity of their situation.
Rita Schirmer-Braun, a member of the board, expressed that they were not initially taken seriously. However, there has been a shift as people are beginning to recognize the impact of their efforts.