How Greta Thunberg Helped Sue Five Countries

In late August 2019, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg arrived in New York City on a sail boat. The 16-year-old climate warrior had just completed a 15-day voyage from Plymouth, England, having opted for the 3,000-mile trip across the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-emissions yacht in order to minimize the carbon footprint of her journey and to make a statement to the world that she means business when it comes to climate change. As the BBC reported upon her arrival, Greta had come to the Americas to make her voice heard in the UN climate summit held in New York City in September 2019. "Our war on nature must end," she said to reporters upon her arrival, adding, "I want to thank everyone ... who is involved in this climate fight, because this is a fight across borders, across continents."

And it's a fight that Greta takes very seriously. According to the L.A. Times, Thunberg had some scathing remarks for world leaders who had used the summit as a means to toot their own horns about their efforts to combat climate change. She called those toots "empty words" and said, "We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can think about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you?" But the vehement censure wasn't the only thing Greta had planned for the summit.

Greta was one of 16 young people from across the globe to call out world leaders

The same day Thunberg delivered her blistering condemnation of world leaders, she and 15 other young people from all over the world had another thing to say, this time through an official communication to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. According to The Conversation, the complainants ranged in age from nine to 17 years old and hailed from a dozen different countries. In addition to teenaged Marshall Islanders fearing the threat rising sea levels pose to their home and others, the group also included Carl Smith, of Alaska's indigenous Yupiaq tribe. As NBC News reported, Smith said that climate change threatens his people's ability to hunt and fish in order to sustain themselves.

The young people's communication charged the countries of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France, and Turkey with violating the standards they themselves promised to uphold when they signed onto the Convention of the Rights of the Child. That convention stipulates that "in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration." Greta and her fellow climate activists claimed that by failing to properly address climate change, the five countries are "recklessly causing and perpetuating life-threatening climate change [and] have failed to take necessary preventive and precautionary measures to respect, protect, and fulfill the petitioners' rights."

What can Greta Thunberg expect to achieve by suing these five countries?

In reality, Greta and the others are expecting to make a powerful statement with their petition. They know that the Committee on the Rights of the Child is quite limited as to its scope of action. First, there are a number of administrative hurdles that the petition has to jump before it can even investigate the claims themselves. Even if their claims are accepted and investigated, the committee can only make recommendations to the sued countries and then follow up later to see if the guidance was heeded. If the countries refuse to change, the UN is ultimately powerless to compel them to take action.

The petition and possible recommendations that come from it, however, can end up being powerful tools in the fight to get countries to pay attention to science and significantly address climate change. Greta knows that the move is primarily symbolic, meant to spur change at the global level. "Once again; this isn't about just 5 nations," she tweeted after filing the complaint. "They were named since they are the highest emitters that have ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child." And if you're wondering why she didn't call out the world's biggest contributors to climate change, she added: "China, USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia etc haven't." The children of the world are still waiting for those countries, as well as Australia and the United Kingdom, to step up to the plate.