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These Portuguese kids are suing 33 European countries to force them to cut emissions

Sixteen-year-old Sofia (left) and 13-year-old André Oliveira stand in Parque da Paz in Lisbon. The siblings are two of six young people in Portugal who are suing the governments of Europe's most polluting countries, including their own, to force them to cut emissions.
Claire Harbage
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Sixteen-year-old Sofia (left) and 13-year-old André Oliveira stand in Parque da Paz in Lisbon. The siblings are two of six young people in Portugal who are suing the governments of Europe's most polluting countries, including their own, to force them to cut emissions.

LISBON, Portugal — Sofia and André Oliveira, siblings and teen climate activists, did not expect much from the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow.

"Most politicians make these statements that they're going to lower emissions 60% by 2030," says André, 13. "And we want to believe that. But because of their history, we know that they really can't be very trusted."

"And so that's why we had to sue them," says Sofia, 16, "so we can give them another chance to do the right thing."

The Oliveira siblings, along with four other young people from Portugal, are suing the governments of the 33 most polluting countries in Europe, including their own, to drastically reduce the production of planet-warming emissions. They argue that climate change risks their health and future, violating their human rights. Portugal is facing sea-level rise as well as chronic droughts and heatwaves.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, has fast-tracked the lawsuit, filed in 2020, which means a judgment could come next year. The court's decision will be legally binding; if the young Portuguese win, the judgment could be enforced in national courts throughout Europe, says Gerry Liston, legal officer at the Global Legal Action Network, a nonprofit based in Ireland and the U.K. that's representing the youths.

"They were prompted to act based on the anxiety they're experiencing, because of what they're witnessing all around them," he says.

Children, most prominently Greta Thunberg, have played a crucial role in climate activism. Several youth activists, including those in the U.S. and Peru, have also filed lawsuits challenging climate and environmental policies in their own countries.

Adults "can see us as serious or they can see us as a joke," Sofia says.

"A lawsuit," André adds, "is not a joke."

A firefighter battles a fire in Leiria district, in central Portugal. The forest went up in flames during a 2017 heatwave.
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images
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A firefighter battles a fire in Leiria district, in central Portugal. The forest went up in flames during a 2017 heatwave.

A 2017 heatwave turned the Oliveira siblings into activists

Sofia and André first grew anxious about climate change in the summer of 2017, when they were 12 and 9. An intense heatwave was baking Portugal. Sofia says Lisbon, their hometown, felt like a greenhouse.

"I was playing with my brother in the garden, playing basketball with him," she recalls. "André was feeling very tired. He can't breathe, and I say, 'André, are you OK?'"

He was having an asthma attack, one of several that summer, and connected it to what he describes as "suffocating" heat. Doctors say climate change is increasing the amount of pollen, mold and other allergens that set off asthma attacks.

"I really thought, like, this is affecting my private life," André says.

He told his sister that it felt like his asthma got worse as temperatures got hotter. "And each summer feels hotter than the one before," he says.

The siblings had learned about climate change in school and from their parents, Nuno Oliveira and Susana Santos, who are biologists. Now that they believed it was affecting their lives, Nuno Oliveira says, they wanted to do something about it — immediately.

"They didn't only say 'what can we do,' but 'what can YOU do? You are doing something to fix it, right?'" he says.

They joined forces with other kids elsewhere in the country

Oliveira and Santos asked an environmentalist friend who volunteered for GLAN to speak with their children. The friend then introduced them to four young Portuguese who lived in central Portugal near the forest of Leiria, which went up in flames during the 2017 heatwave.

One of those young people, Catarina Mota, now 21, remembers looking up at the sky and seeing only smoke. The fires killed 66 people.

"In that moment, I felt like I could see my entire life, my future life," she says. "I was scared."

The young people wanted to do something big. They just weren't sure what that should be.

"We were going to demonstrations and rallies, posting stuff online, trying to make others aware," André says. "It didn't seem like it was enough."

But when lawyers at GLAN suggested suing governments via the European Court of Human Rights, he hesitated. He wasn't sure what a lawsuit was, only that it was "something adults did to each other."

"At first I thought it was a little extreme, to be honest," he says. "But then I did some research and decided, yeah, this is perfect, this is a way to get them to listen."

Liston, the GLAN legal officer, stepped in to talk about why this particular legal strategy lined up with the young people's concerns.

"We started by explaining to them what their human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights are and why the failure by governments to take the necessary action to cut their emissions to the extent required by the science is an infringement of their human rights," he says. "This made sense to them."

A view from the rocky coast in Peniche, Portugal, where fishermen catch sardines among other fish. Climate change is already affecting marine life, including catches of Portugal's most beloved fish — the sardine.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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A view from the rocky coast in Peniche, Portugal, where fishermen catch sardines among other fish. Climate change is already affecting marine life, including catches of Portugal's most beloved fish — the sardine.

The six youths crowdfunded to help finance the lawsuit. GLAN put it together and filed it with the Strasbourg court, part of the Council of Europe.

"Climate change entails a current impact upon and risk to the lives and health of the applicants," the suit says. "This interference will progressively intensify over the course of their lifetime."

There's broad support in Portugal for action on climate change

After their lawsuit was filed in September 2020, the young Portuguese got a lot of attention. Portugal's president met with them to discuss their concerns. Angelina Jolie contacted GLAN and asked Sofia to contribute to a book about children's rights. An Austrian documentary crew working with Netflix got in touch about making a film.

"The media attention has sometimes been too much, because we have to so much to do at school and work," says Mota. "We try to do what we can because we really want to win. It is our future."

There is broad public support in Portugal for action on climate change. The government has adopted a strategy to adapt to the effects of global warming as well as a plan to fight it. Last month, the country hosted a U.N. conference on risk management for climate emergencies.

Fishermen bring in their catch in Peniche, Portugal.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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Fishermen bring in their catch in Peniche, Portugal.

Isaul Rodrigues, a fishmonger in the craggy port of Peniche, north of Lisbon, supports the children's lawsuit because he wonders if the government's policies will be implemented fast enough to help the fishing industry. Climate change is already affecting marine life, including catches of Portugal's most beloved fish, the sardine.

"The fishermen tell me that because of the warming seas, they are catching fewer sardines and that those they catch are smaller than before," Rodrigues says. "It's hard to fight industries and lobbies to make change, but maybe they will pay attention to the kids."

Listening nearby is Manon Museux, an intern from France who is working in quality control at the Peniche port.

"It's hard to fight industries and lobbies to make change, but maybe they will pay attention to the kids," says Isaul Rodrigues, a fishmonger in Peniche, Portugal.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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"It's hard to fight industries and lobbies to make change, but maybe they will pay attention to the kids," says Isaul Rodrigues, a fishmonger in Peniche, Portugal.
Manon Museux, 22, works as an intern with the quality control of the fish coming into the port in Peniche, Portugal.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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Manon Museux, 22, works as an intern with the quality control of the fish coming into the port in Peniche, Portugal.

"Sometimes it's a bit hard for us to explain the urgency of climate change to older people," she says. "It's great when it gets through."

Even if the children win their case, change will take a long time

João Joanaz de Melo, an environmental engineering professor at NOVA University Lisbon, has spent years advocating for greener policies, including less reliance on cars and reforesting woodlands with native trees.

"Change takes decades," he says. "For example, it can take 200 years to see full-grown Mediterranean forests from the bare soil after a fire."

He says he hopes the young Portuguese win their case but that's not enough for the dramatic policy changes needed to avoid a climate emergency.

"It risks being a Pyrrhic victory because what must come next is decades of hard work, and there is no way the courts will be able to enforce that," he says. "The only way to achieve that is through the will of the people. The people at large must want this."

Sofia Oliveira says she and her fellow activists want to believe that the will is already there.

Trees in Parque da Paz frame the Cristo Rei statue in Lisbon.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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Trees in Parque da Paz frame the Cristo Rei statue in Lisbon.

"I think most people see that climate change is not a joke and that we don't have much time left," she says. "'We are here to remind them that they can do something about it."

Filipa Soares contributed to this story in Portugal.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.