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Young activists pick a legal option to try to get European nations to cut emissions


The U.N.'s climate conference ended with pledges to cut greenhouse gases but few commitments on immediate action. Now, that is a disappointment to many young people who've been at the forefront in the fight for tough reforms, including six young people in Portugal. They're suing for change. Joanna Kakissis reports from Lisbon.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Sofia Oliviera was 12 years old when she realized climate change was hurting her family. It was 2017. Record heat waves were baking Lisbon and the rest of Portugal.

SOFIA OLIVIERA: And I was playing with my brother in the garden and playing basketball with him. And Andre was feeling very tired, and he can't breathe. And I said, Andre, are you OK?

KAKISSIS: Andre has asthma. He was 9 years old then.

ANDRE: I just felt so suffocating. I really thought, like, this is affecting my private life.

KAKISSIS: Andre told his sister that his asthma seemed to be getting worse each year as temperatures in Portugal got hotter. The siblings had learned about climate change in school, and now that they felt it, they wanted answers from their parents. Nuno Oliveira and Susanna Santos, who are biologists.

NUNO OLIVIERA: They didn't only said, what can we do? But they said, what can you do? You're doing something to fix it, right?

SUSANNA SANTOS: We ask ourselves, are we doing enough? It was, like, overwhelming.

KAKISSIS: A lawyer friend connected the family with four young people who lived north of Lisbon in the forests of Leiria. One of those young people, Catarina Mota, remembers how her forest went up in flames during that heat wave in 2017.

CATARINA MOTA: It's horrible seeing the sky and only sees the smoke.

KAKISSIS: The kids wanted to do something big. They met with Gerry Liston, who works for the Global Legal Action Network.

GERRY LISTON: 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.

KAKISSIS: They crowdfunded to finance the lawsuit, and last year, they sued the 33 governments of the most polluting countries in Europe, including Portugal. They say these countries are violating human rights by failing to cut emissions. The young activists are being cheered on by Isaul Rodrigues, who sells fish in the craggy port of Peniche.

ISAUL RODRIGUES: (Speaking Portuguese).

KAKISSIS: Rodrigues says climate change is already affecting marine life, including catches of Portugal's most beloved fish, the sardine.

RODRIGUES: (Through interpreter) The fishermen tell me that because of the warming seas, they are catching fewer sardines and that those they catch are smaller than before.

KAKISSIS: The European Court of Human Rights has fast-tracked this case, which means there could be a decision as early as next year. Back in Lisbon, in the lush city park, Sofia, who's 16 now, tells me this case has helped her confront her fear of climate change.

S OLIVIERA: You don't scare me. You are a problem that I'm solving right now, and I have hope in my heart.

KAKISSIS: If they win this case, it's legally binding, which means it could be enforced in national courts throughout Europe. Andre, now 13, says he's also prepared if they lose.

ANDRE: Even if it doesn't work, I think this is really good inspiration for other people. It's just like a snowball effect. They're coming, others and others and others.

KAKISSIS: Until, he says, doing the right thing will be the only choice. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Lisbon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTUGAL. THE MAN'S "FEEL IT STILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.