May, 1, 2024

by Francesco Ramella

The European Court of Human Rights found the Swiss government guilty for not doing enough to protect the Swiss from climate change and, particularly, from heat waves that affect, above all, the elderly. The case was brought to the Court by a group of more than 2,000 Swiss women backed by Greenpeace. According to the judges, the Swiss government violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which reads as follows: “1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. 2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Oddly enough, the Court asks for more interference by the government: More taxation and regulation. Yet, whatever the Swiss government does, it cannot affect the climate risks of its citizens in any meaningful way.

Since 2000, CO2 emissions in Switzerland have decreased by 19%. Instead, they have increased by 50% in the entire world and by 200%% in China. Moreover, the share of global CO2 caused by producers in Switzerland is less than 0.1%, and the same figure for the emissions generated by the production of the goods consumed in Switzerland is 0.3%.

In short, Switzerland is a “climate taker”. The Swiss government cannot protect senior citizens from (more) heatwaves with stricter mitigation, just like what happens in the Maldives, where the government cannot slow down the rise the sea level. But do the Swiss really risk of dying from excessive heat?

A recent paper (De Schrijver et al. 2024) provides us with an answer. In Switzerland, on average 312 people died each year from heat-related causes during 1990-2010 period. This is about 0.5% of those who pass away, each year, in that country. According to the researchers, a warming of 1.5 °C would increase the yearly death toll to 626, while a 2.0 °C rise would bring the figure to 1,274. These estimates refer to a population that changes in size and age. If these factors were excluded from the analysis, there would be 499 and 719 deaths, with a rise in temperature of 1.5°C and 2.0°C, respectively. These figures would further drop if one considered that a warmer climate would imply fewer victims caused by freezing temperatures.

Now, let’s suppose that the government chooses a more aggressive climate policy. It could raise the price of fossil fuels, subsidize more solar and wind power or levy a tax on imported goods involving high CO2 emissions. All these measures would lower households’ purchasing power and possibly reduce private expenditure on health-related goods. For example, in the United States, during the past 80 years, the mortality impact of days with mean temperature exceeding 27°C declined by 75% thanks to the expenditure on residential air conditioning. The same trend has characterised all the climate-related hazards in the US: from 1980-1990 to 2007-2016 mortality dropped by 6.5 times.

To sum up: Swiss government cannot have any significant impact on the climate-related damages suffered by its citizens, and actions leading to a rapid decline of greenhouse gas emissions will make them more vulnerable. Of course, the best thing one could do to reduce the human impact on climate change is to stop immediately all the activities that generate CO2 emissions. It would be a recipe for a disaster. In fact, the case for climate mitigation should be based on the long run global consequences of the cumulated emissions, rather than on the short run and local effects. If they were truly interested in their wellbeing, the KlimaSeniorinnen should ask the Government to do nothing at all.