Too Hot for 55

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    Just as I was quietly celebrating my 55th birthday earlier this week, news broke about a proper celebration happening further south, at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Surely you have heard by now about the historic victory won by the ladies of Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz against the Swiss state on 9 April? What a feat they have accomplished, setting pressure on governments all over the world to start protecting better their (senior) citizens against the effects of climate change!

    Not that the details of the case are anything to rejoice about, mind you. For rather selfish reasons, I suspect, it is the morbidity and mortality statistics that hit me first. I realise that heat-related deaths take the highest toll among persons aged 55 to 64. And that, apparently, women are even more susceptible to this particular risk than men are. Now, I consider myself relatively ‘fit for 55’, but my heart sinks, nevertheless, at the realisation that I have just entered the ‘death zone’, climate-change-wise.  “Some people say, why are you complaining, you’re going to die anyway,” says one of the climate activists, Elisabeth Stern, interviewed by 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.”

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    Personal health concerns apart, I wonder what compelled my fellow 55+ ladies in Switzerland to drive their case all the way to international court. It is, after all, a rather extreme way to settle the matter. Could it be that the vantage point of mature age and the glimpse of (potential) grandchildren make us even more concerned about the well-being of future generations and thus prone to climate-change anxiety? Writing about the phenomenon a while ago, I remember noting that the best course of action to prevent eco-anxiety from turning into debilitating hopelessness and despair is taking collective action in a sustained manner. Engaging in a longer-term effort where you establish relationships working with other people and can see the fruits of your hard work in terms of actual changes is highly beneficial to your mental health. If the theory holds, the women from the Swiss association should be experiencing a hefty therapeutic effect as we speak.

    Not everyone is cheering for the senior activists’ legal victory, however. Swiss media has been particularly harsh in its judgement of the court’s irreversible verdict, calling the ruling “questionable” or even “absurd”. Concerns that “activist jurisprudence” could pave the way for all kinds of claims and deepen divisions over climate policy are voiced. There are even speculations that the elderly plaintiffs are ultimately pawns in the hands of environmental lobbies using the court to circumvent democratic debate.

    Hurt feelings aside, could they be up to something? Is democracy in the beautiful alpine country really threatened by the senior women’s victory in court? After all, with its admirable tradition of referendums regularly testing the limits of national policymaking, Switzerland is a poster child for adhering to the voice of its citizens. Consider the fact that when the government proposed stronger measures to deliver on the country’s already ambitious emission-reduction targets1, voters rebuffed them in a 2021 referendum. Winning the hearts and minds of the Swiss people, it would appear, is not as easy as winning in court.

    Yet, isn’t it rather reassuring to know that when the democratic process fails to protect our human rights, due to, say, citizens’ and governments’ short-sightedness or selfish interests, there is still a judicial system to turn to? Let us not underestimate the significance of the victory achieved by the Swiss women after nine years of intensive work. For the first time ever, a transnational court is directly upholding a right to climate protection, laying out specific requirements that states must meet to comply with their human rights obligations.

    That is indeed something to celebrate!

    1. Switzerland has committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, from 1990 levels.

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    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia Axelsson, CAIA
    Julia has accumulated experience in asset management for more than 20 years in Stockholm and Beijing, in portfolio management, asset allocation, fund selection and risk management. In December 2020, she completed a program in Sustainability Studies at the University of Linköping. Julia speaks Mandarin, Bulgarian, Hindi, Russian, Swedish, Urdu and English. She holds a Master in Indology from Sofia University and has completed studies in Economics at both Stockholm University and Stockholm School of Economics.
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