Who are Switzerland's victorious climate 'Elders'?

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Who are Switzerland's victorious climate 'Elders'?
Members of the Swiss association after the court ruling. Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP

The Swiss women's association Elders for Climate Protection secured a historic win Tuesday when Europe's top rights court faulted Switzerland for not doing enough to tackle global warming.


Here are some facts about the group of Swiss seniors who helped secure the European Court of Human Rights' first-ever condemnation of a country for failing to take action against climate change.

Over 64 

In August 2016 a small group of women above retirement age who had bonded over concerns about climate change created the association to demand stronger action towards reaching the goals set by the 2015 Paris Agreement.

That agreement set targets for governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the aim of preferably limiting warming to below global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"If everyone acted as Switzerland is doing today, global warming of up to three degrees Celsius could occur by 2100," the Elders for Climate Protection say on their website.

"Keeping it below 1.5 degrees is decisive to avert more serious threats to human rights."

Today, the association says it counts more than 2,500 members -- all women over the age of 64 who live in Switzerland.

Their average age is 73, it said.

"Elderly women are extremely vulnerable to the effects of heat," the association said, explaining its membership criteria.

It does not meanwhile place the same restrictions on its some 1,200 supporters.

Long journey 

The organisation has been arguing for climate protection to be recognised as a human right, pointing out that the increasingly frequent and intense heatwaves it is causing "pose a real and serious risk to our lives and physical and mental health".

But the lawsuits it brought in Switzerland were all thrown out.

After failing to get a hearing before Switzerland's Supreme Court, the Elders for Climate Protection filed an appeal in 2020 with the European Court of Human Rights.

That court finally issued its verdict Tuesday, finding that the Swiss state had violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the "right to respect for private and family life".

The lawyer of the Swiss association, Cordelia Bahr, said the court had "established that climate protection was a human right".

"It's a huge victory for us and a legal precedent for all the states of the Council of Europe," she said.


A librarian and a counsellor 

The association counts two co-presidents.

Anne Mahrer, a librarian from Geneva, has always been involved in environmental protection, first as part of the anti-nuclear movement in the 1970s, according to an annual listing of notable Swiss citizens published by the Illustré weekly.

She later got into politics, becoming a parliamentarian for the Green Party.

At her side is Rosmarie Wydler-Walti, who worked as an education and marriage counsellor in Basel.

As a young mother, she got involved in the environmental protection and feminist movements.

In a profile published by the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, she said she felt moved to act after the "traumatising" Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and by a fire in a warehouse storing chemicals near Basel the same year.


Greenpeace support 

The Elders for Climate Protection has since the start enjoyed strong support from the Swiss chapter of Greenpeace, which among other things has stood as guarantor for its years of legal fees.

Since its creation in 2016, the association has raked up more than 122,000 francs in expenses, according to its website.

Tuesday's verdict "is obviously a huge relief for the people who have been working on this case for years," Greenpeace spokesman Mathias Schlegel told the Le Temps daily.

"It is a very emotional moment. I have even seen some of my colleagues in tears," he said.

Greenpeace and the Elders for Climate Protection now plan to take their case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, with hearings expected to begin early next year.


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