February 27, 2024

This women, mostly in their 70s, walked up the mountain with stubborn grace. With their walking poles slapped against sun-baked stones, they set firm feet on shaky rocks and hold hands to cross slippery streams. They knew the heat and stress were a threat to their health—perhaps they were uniquely aware of the risks—but they didn’t plan to let it limit their lives.

“I’m a mountain climber,” said 73-year-old Pia Hollenstein as she swept away the hand I offered to help her clear a large rock. “I can manage.”

Woman walking with poles on a mountain path
Beatrice Braun (left) and Rita Schirmer-Braun (centre) of the KlimaSeniorinnen. Photo: Ajit Niranjan/The Guardian

The of Switzerland KlimaSeniorinnen, or senior climate women, are not who most people think of when they talk about those on the front lines of the climate crisis. The 2,400 members of the group live in one of the richest countries on earth. Because of their age – the youngest is 64 – they will witness only a fraction of the extreme weather that their generation’s children and grandchildren will see.

But these retirees are among those fighting the hardest for a livable future. The women are suing the Swiss government in Europe’s highest court for violating their human rights with policies that do too little to stop the planet from baking. Their case, which could send shockwaves through courts across the continent, rests on two simple facts. Heat waves are getting hotter as people burn fossil fuels. And women, especially older people, are more likely to die when temperatures rise.

“When they asked me to join, I thought Swiss politics was hopeless,” says Hollenstein, a retired nurse and former Green Party MP who sits on the board of the KlimaSeniorinnen. “But it’s an important lever.”

On a Monday morning in August, I joined Hollenstein and several of her fellow plaintiffs for a hike around Lake Göschener in the Alps. High in the mountains – a core part of Switzerland’s identity and the basis of its tourism and energy sectors – we looked out on breathtaking scenery, alpine wildlife and a hydroelectric dam. The women chose the place to show what will be lost if the glacier melts.

A group of women in hiking gear near a lake in the mountains
Pia Hollenstein, a board member of the KlimaSeniorinnentalk to other members of the group. Photo: Ajit Niranjan/The Guardian

What they didn’t choose was the weather. That morning, Swiss scientists found that the zero-degree line – the height at which temperatures drop below freezing – has reached its highest level yet. Two days earlier, the national weather agency had issued heat warnings for most of the country. A tabloid newspaper interviewed a meteorologist about weather warnings. On its front page it warned: “The heat waves are just beginning.”

The KlimaSeniorinnen paid attention to the news, but not deterred by it. They came with bottles of water, trekking poles and sensible shoes. Beatrice Braun, an artist, told me she knitted the multicolored hiking socks on her feet. The women were mindful of the limits of their bodies, but said they preferred cool mountain air to stifling city heat. Only at times did the warmth of the sun and the stress of the hike cause concern. “I have the same problem as the glacier,” says Annemarie Ulmi-Klieber, pointing to the sweat running down her face. “I’m melting.”

Heat, doctors warn, is much more dangerous than people realize. In periods of hot weather, some victims die when working or living outdoors. Many more die in retirement homes and hospitals, their weakened bodies weak from the weather and unable to fight diseases that hurt the heart, lungs and kidneys. Heat killed an extra 70,000 people across Europe last year, according to the latest analysis of mortality and temperature data, and the death toll this year, the hottest on record, could be even higher.

“Based on current evidence from epidemiological studies, older women are particularly vulnerable to heat,” said Ana Vicedo-Cabrera, who leads the climate and health team at the Institute for Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Berne, and the state of the science for the court. The reasons why are unclear, she said, but “changes in the cardiovascular system due to menopause or the fact that older women tend to be more active than men have been suggested as possible reasons”.

In that sense, the case presented by the KlimaSeniorinnen is a strategic one. First proposed a decade ago by Greenpeace campaigners, it tackles an issue that has held back climate litigation around the world: because the climate crisis hurts everyone, rather than targeting a specific person or group, courts would be overwhelmed if they tried every case recognized by individuals against major polluters.

What the Swiss lawyers needed was a group of people – the narrower the better – who could argue not only that their right to life was being violated by rising temperatures, but that they were disproportionately affected. Scientists from around the world have shown that heat hurts women more than men, and old people more than young people. Vicedo-Cabrera and her colleagues found that older women in Switzerland died at the highest rates from heat in the summer of 2022. They worked out that 60% of the deaths in a world without the climate crisis would be avoided.

Rita Schirmer-Braun walks on a mountain path, followed by other hikers.
Scientists are unsure why older women are at greater risk during heat waves than older men. Photo: Ajit Niranjan/The Guardian

But as I sweated on the slopes of the Swiss Alp and struggled to keep up with women more than twice my age, I was surprised to learn that the KlimaSeniorinnen did not file the case for their own benefit. Instead, they thought more about people my age.

“Our generation has done so much to destroy the climate. We have a responsibility,” Hollenstein said. “It serves everyone if we can successfully get Switzerland to do more [to stop].”

After years of setbacks in regional and national courts, which threw out the case on procedural grounds, the KlimaSeniorinnen took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. The court has not previously ruled on the government’s climate action, but will hear the Swiss case early next year along with similar cases of a French mayor and several Portuguese teenagers. The results will open the door to cases in other countries if governments across Europe do not comply with the rulings.

Charlotte Blattner, a researcher at the University of Bern who specializes in climate law, said experts are hopeful the process will enshrine milestones that have spurred governments to tougher climate policies through human rights guarantees. Still, she said, “the chances that the KlimaSeniorinnen win this case on all grounds is very unlikely”.

In its statement to the court, the Swiss government said it was “perfectly legal” for members of the public to call on states to do more to combat global warming, but that the system around the European convention on human rights was not intended to become the place where national policies to combat global warming were decided. “Defining and choosing the measures to be taken is indeed a matter for the government, parliament and people of Switzerland.”

The government has also pushed back at the heart of the matter, disputing that women of retirement age are automatically at greater risk of heatwaves.

Members of the KlimaSeniorinnen stop to rest during a walk.
Members of the KlimaSeniorinnen stop to rest during a hike. Photo: Ajit Niranjan/The Guardian

Not all of those KlimaSeniorinnen will live long enough to see the outcome of their struggle – some members are already dead and even a victory in Strasbourg does not guarantee a change in policy. If they win the court case, they say they will pressure the government to come up with a plan to meet its targets, which will then be voted on in a referendum. The Swiss public voted in a referendum in June for a target of net zero emissions by 2050, but rejected a package of concrete policies to reduce pollution in 2021.

Yet, for the women, even getting a case to the 17 judges in the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is a step they could hardly imagine as children. All of them were born – and some even came of age – at a time when women in Switzerland did not have the right to vote. They said they were happy to make the best use of the tools available to them.

“This group of women simply inspired me,” says Verena Steiner, who joined the group last year. The former architect said she had been “climate conscious” for 40 years but had only recently become more active.

The group said they now also command more respect. Some people dismissed them as “old wives” in the past, but the reality of their plight has become harder to ignore.

“We haven’t been taken seriously for a long time,” says Rita Schirmer-Braun, who sits on the board. “But now they are slowly starting to take us seriously, because they see what is happening around us.”

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