Elderly women are suing their government so that younger generations can have a future
They’re making sure that their climate legacy is one worth remembering.
When you picture climate activists, the last thing that probably springs to mind are elderly women.
But the women of Klima Seniorinnen, an organisation comprised of women all aged 64 and over, are changing the system and are acting not only for themselves but for future generations as well.
Since 2016, the group have been active in lobbying for reform on Swiss climate policies. Reversing climate change is a lifetime struggle, but they are doing all they can to ease the path ahead for young people.
Rosmarie has been a witness to climate change her whole life but knows we can’t afford to continue just watching it unfold. Instead of leaving it to future generations to fix the problem, she’s acting now.
How do you think public understanding of climate change has changed over the course of your lifetime?
Since the 70s, I have been aware of the danger of climate change and that human activities are having more and more of an impact on the environment.
From this point I knew about the hole in the ozone, the negative effects of fuel use, pesticides in agriculture, chemical emissions in Switzerland and other countries, and so on. These days, I feel more people are getting angry but unfortunately still not enough people are interested or engaged enough to do something about these problems.
What are some of the impacts of climate change that you face in Switzerland, and how do you project things getting worse if action isn’t taken?
The biggest problem is that our glaciers are melting a lot. We had some landslides along the mountains because the permanently frozen earth has melted, which allows them to move.
On the other hand, this summer, lots of farmers ran out of water and hay for their cattle, especially on the Alps. Lots of rivers have become dry, and in big rivers like the Rhine, the water temperature has reached over 26 degrees Celsius, which is too warm and caused some fish to die.
Furthermore, farmers might have to start planting fruits, cereal and other vegetables that can handle more heat and don’t need much water.
How do you view climate change as being a human rights problem, and to what extent should the governments failing to adequately respond to it be held accountable?
I think it is a human right to live in a healthy environment anywhere on this planet.
Rich countries like ours, which are creating most of the emissions, are responsible for other countries which are extremely vulnerable and have to suffer as a result. So we have to immediately do everything possible to bring down our CO2 emissions — especially Switzerland, which belongs to the list of richest countries and often helps in peacemaking.
A couple of years ago Klima Seniorinnen put forward a lawsuit against the government. What progress has been made?
Last year in April we got the answer from the Department of Environment and Energy. They decided to reject our request on the basis that it is not only our problem, but a global problem.
In Switzerland, one has to take the political way, not the judicial way. So in May 2017 we went to the federal administrative court and filed a complaint to put pressure on the government to act on our request. Our complaint is still being considered and we are waiting for an answer.*
The lawsuit itself only includes female plaintiffs over the age of 64. Why had you chosen to focus on this specific demographic?
We referred to international studies on the heat wave in the summer of 2003, where many thousands of elderly women died. It became evident that elderly women over the age of 75 are especially affected by great heat, as it causes cardiac and respiratory problems among other complications. So our association decided to put forward a request to the government. Our request was based on the evidence of health risks for elderly women, and so we elderly women had the best chance to reach our goal.
Are you more motivated by the vulnerability of elderly people today or the need to improve the environment for future generations?
Of course, I am most motivated to keep our beautiful planet healthy for future generations and all other beings. But because we elders are the most vulnerable group, we have to make ourselves the juristic focus.
Can you describe the kind of work that the Klima Seniorinnen does on a regular basis — what do the plaintiffs involved have to do and are there other duties they perform outside of the lawsuits?
We are often asked to talk about ourselves by various associations, universities and climate congresses and in a range of magazines and newspapers. We also participate in major climate demonstrations where we can we make our project public while giving out flyers promoting exhibitions. We have also met and joined other groups in different countries who are taking their own climate action to the courts.
Working to stop and reverse the effects of climate change is obviously an eternal struggle, but how soon can you hope to see a substantial change in Switzerland and in other parts of the world?
Switzerland began to do its duty by addressing the amount of fuel used for heating, but the fuel emitted from traffic is as bad as ever and so the parliament has been asked to pass new laws while making existing laws stronger. This was also mentioned recently in the new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And of course, all other industrial countries are also being asked to do their part.
What can ordinary people, of any age, do to create a more sustainable future? What gives you hope that a sustainable future is possible?
All people should live more frugally, use transport that creates less pollution, eat less meat, avoid harmful pesticides, buy less, seek out second-hand clothes, and try to live in small, sustainable apartments among other things.
I do hope and often see that future generations are seriously interested in changing their lifestyle because it is necessary for people to remain healthy and live in peace.
There’s a stereotype that older people are less likely to alter their way of life to mitigate climate change. Do you feel that for this reason it’s especially important for senior citizens to speak out about it?
Yes, for lots of older people it is not easy to change their lifestyle, especially when they have a lot of wealth. Of course, I try to explain to them that their grandchildren will face problems in the future if we continue with the way we live today. I would tell older people around the world what it might be like on our planet in about 20 years, and ask how they think future generations will live. Only we elders can do something to keep our planet healthy and so we are responsible for doing so — and we need to do it now!
*UPDATE: as of December 2018 the Swiss Federal Administrative Court has ruled that women over 75 years old are not more impacted by the effects of climate change than other population groups in Switzerland.
Rashini Suriyaarachchi is a freelance writer based in Kathmandu