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Legal Action Is Too Late for Alpine Glaciers

Legal action may combat future carbon emissions, but rapidly melting glaciers in the French and Italian Alps are already putting roads, homes, and hikers in danger

On September 23rd, Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg joined forces with fifteen other teenagers from around the world to file a landmark complaint with the UN, alleging that five of the world’s major economies have violated human rights by failing to halt the climate crisis.

The complaint names Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina, and Turkey, and calls on their obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child – the most widely ratified treaty in history. These specific countries were singled out for two reasons: one, because they are among the 44 signatories that have accepted the convention’s jurisdiction to hear complaints against them, and two, because they are also five of the world’s biggest historical and current emitters of greenhouse gases, which are behind the planet’s warming and the dangerous climate shifts the warming has brought about.

Meanwhile, other major greenhouse gas emitters, like the USA and China, went unnamed, in part because those states did not sign onto the part of the treaty that allows for children to seek justice for violations.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words — and yet, I’m one of the lucky ones”, Thunberg said in an impassioned speech at the UN Climate Action Summit. “People are suffering, people are dying.”

The children, who come from twelve different nations all over the world, detailed how leaders dragging their feet on climate action has violated their rights, asserting that resources have not been adequately used “to prevent the deadly and foreseeable consequences” of the current crisis. They also noted that these nations have failed to cooperate effectively with other countries in order to address the problem.

If successful, the United Nations could classify the climate emergency as a children’s rights crisis. This would allow the UN to compel the five countries named in the suit to either work with other nations to establish legally binding emissions reduction targets, or force them to exit the treaty. Currently any such targets – as is the case in the Paris Agreement – are non-binding.

This is not the first instance where children have sued governments over climate change. In the USA, a case known as Juliana v. United States, filed by 21 children and teens, has been working its way through the federal court system since 2015. Torres Strait Islanders, who live on low-lying islands slowly consumed by the rising seas, filed a climate change international court case against Australia earlier this year for failing to curb emissions. In the Netherlands, an environmental group won a lawsuit that led a court in the Hague to order the government to curb emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Similar, mostly youth-led legal actions are also underway in Belgium, Uganda, and the Philippines.

Sébastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, noted that “These cases help expose the hypocrisy of countries that claim to be fully committed to the realisation of human rights yet undermine these rights through their absence of sufficient action to tackle climate change.”

Reactions have not all been supportive, however. French President Emmanuel Macron was ill-pleased with Thunberg and her peers, calling their legal action “very radical” and likely to “antagonise societies”.


A section of Mont Blanc – a chunk of ice nearly eight stories high and as wide as two football fields – is at risk of collapse due to climate change. Copyright: Chris Pelle / Shuttershock.com

Out of Time

These lawsuits may already be too late. As global climate change continues to heat the planet, glaciers keep melting. Those on Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe – which spans the French-Italian border in the Alps – threaten to collapse, endangering multiple homes and roads.

During a strike on September 20th, children in the town of Courmayeur marched to protest the climate crisis. Numbering about 160 in total, activists chanted “Ban plastic, save our planet!” while carrying placards that read “You broke our glacier”, referring to the Planpincieux which sits in close proximity to the Grandes Jorasses peak.

“We live here and can see the damage that climate change is doing”, said Matteo Pelliciotta, a teacher who helped with the march. “Every day, the glacier changes and becomes more grey in colour. This protest is more than just a message, it is a demand for politicians to take proper action.”

Realising part of the massive glacier was at risk of imminent collapse, officials in northern Italy called for emergency measures, closing roads and evacuating mountain homes – many of which are used to vacation in. The left side of the Planpincieux glacier is the most endangered, and the chunk of ice that may fall is nearly eight stories high and as wide as two football fields – approximately 250,000 cubic metres.  While falling ice is not uncommon, its size and proximity to residents, hiking trails, and roads is, as is the fact that there is no way to ascertain which part of the glacier will collapse, and when. This threat will become more common as global climate change continues unabated.

“These phenomena once again show that the mountain is going through a phase of strong change due to climatic factors, therefore it is particularly vulnerable”, said Stefano Miserocchi, Mayor of Courmayeur, in a statement. “In this case, it’s a temperate glacier particularly sensitive to high temperatures.”

“Each year you see how much the glacier changes”, Miserocchi told the Observer. “The average temperature has risen to the point where, in winter, ice is no longer being recreated because even though it snows, the temperature doesn’t get cold enough. Where there was once ice, there is now rock.”

Across the border, visitors must trek farther every year to reach the “Mer de Glace“, or Sea of Ice glacier – France’s largest. At one point, a sign on the edge of the valley says: “Level of the Glacier: 1990.” Once pristine and smooth, it now stands greyish and depressed. Workers have laid white tarpaulins, held down with stones, on the ice to protect it from the sun.

Italian scientists are currently monitoring movement with ground-based radar at the Safe Mountain Foundation. Foundation director Jean-Pierre Fosson noted that rapid melting means the glacier is speeding up, moving at about 50 to 60 cm per day. “For a glacier, it’s a lot”, said Fosson.

The director added that “The great problem for the glacier is not the one day of high temperatures – instead, it’s the continuous high temperatures night and day”, which is aggravated by climate change.

Courmayer relies heavily on tourist income and as more visitors choose to stay away, locals fear for their livelihood. “This could be really damaging for us”, said Luca Savaglia from the Alpine Guides Society, which organises mountain excursions. “This particular glacier has always moved, and there are no hiking paths there, no climbing…we haven’t had any cancellations, but a lot of people have called to ask what is going on.”

The Price of Doing Nothing

The melting Planpincieux already claimed two lives when in August 2018 a heavy storm caused debris flow from the glacier, killing an elderly couple when their car was swept from the road – the same one that is now closed off. An avalanche this past January narrowly missed homes but did not claim any lives. Other glacier disasters elsewhere, however, have caused major damage and loss of life, and no one is taking Mont Blanc lightly.

During a speech on climate change at the recent UN General Assembly, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stated “It is now news that a glacier on Mont Blanc risks collapsing… It’s an alarm that cannot leave us indifferent. It must shake us all and mobilise us.”

Safe Mountain Foundation experts are monitoring 184 glaciers in the Aosta Valley region. There are 4,000 glaciers across the Mont Blanc massif, with peaks over 4,000 metres tall and about 30 glaciers on the Italian side – all of which are melting. In the last 50 years alone, these formations have lost about 40 percent of their total mass. Scientists predict that if emissions continue to rise at their current rate, Alpine glaciers will lose half their ice mass by 2050.

Climate activists have staged funerals across the Alps for “dead” or dying glaciers and melting permafrost. One such event happened earlier in September to mark the disappearance of the Pizol glacier in north-east Switzerland, which is now a mere 20 percent of its original size, with the bulk of it lost since 2006. Another ceremony was held in Iceland to commemorate a glacier that was officially declared “dead” five years ago.

A landmark report, entitled the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), documents cities like New York, Miami, and Shanghai that are seeing an increase in flooding. Coastal cities that experienced flooding perhaps once in a century now may see these natural disasters annually, affecting over 680 million people. Melting permafrost has contributed to rapidly rising seas, and few cities are prepared. Adaptation to a changing environment will be difficult for wealthy states; poorer countries will be even more hard-pressed.

Around the world, Greenland’s ice sheet, which has the potential to raise sea levels around six metres, is melting the fastest, and the larger Antarctic mass’ loss tripled between 2007 and 2016 in comparison to the previous ten years. Oceans are growing increasingly acidic and fisheries that feed millions are also collapsing – as are mass coral reef bleaching and ruin.

Despite legal action and climate activism by the youngest among us, the world may only have until 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. While this may not be enough to avoid substantial changes to the environment, it could prevent the most catastrophic consequences.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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