Marie-Eve Volkoff, 85, was locked inside her little Geneva apartment watching taped TV shows last summer while dozens of Swiss retirees were out in the mountains advocating for the preservation of their rapidly melting glaciers.
She is challenging the Swiss government alongside more than 2,000 other elderly women in the first-ever climate case before the European Court of Human Rights this week, in part because of her irritation with what she terms the “climate lockdown.” The submission, which is expected to be followed by two others this year, might result in an order for carbon reductions that exceed even the 2015 Paris Agreement targets, which would be a significant precedent.
Switzerland’s punishing triple heatwaves in 2022 compelled Volkoff to stay at home for 11 weeks with just short outings which she says was worse than COVID-19 and a violation of her human rights.
“I have had to enormously restrict my activities, to wait, with the blinds down and the air conditioning on (shame for an ecologist!) for the heatwave to pass, allowing me to go back to normal life,” she wrote in a letter to her fellow activists entitled ‘a little tale from climate lockdown’ which she shared with Reuters.
Volkoff, who formerly worked as a volunteer and social worker and enjoys Tai Chi, theatre and swimming in Lake Geneva, says that her confinement was necessary due to a cardiovascular illness.
Her medical documents, which form part of the case’s legal backbone and were reviewed exclusively by Reuters, showed she has an irregular heart beat that worsens during hot weather obliging her to double her medication and lie down.
Before buying an air conditioner in 2019, Volkoff said she used to hover near her bed for fear of passing out.
“I am fighting for my life and for my quality of life. Why do I fight? Because it’s only going to get worse and, if the government is as languid as it is now, it won’t sort itself out,” she said, describing Swiss action to date as “shameful”.
Some of the other women in the case described shortness of breath, nausea and even loss of consciousness during heatwaves which are becoming more frequent due to climate change. One told Reuters she felt she would “melt into the concrete” when out walking on a hot day. Others sought refuge in their cellars.
Switzerland’s policies to date are deemed “insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker, a website which monitors states’ action on global warming. Bern outlined a plan to cut emissions further in 2021 but voters rebuffed it as too burdensome.
The Swiss government declined to comment on the case. It told the court that the changes to the women’s lives during heatwaves like staying at home were “quite common” and that everyone, including plants and animals, was affected.
More broadly, Switzerland said it recognises that climate change is a problem for the country where temperatures are rising about twice the global rate. But it says solutions need to be found at home.
Anne Mahrer, co-president of the association Senior Women for Climate Protection, which is an applicant in the case in its own right alongside Volkoff, told Reuters that her years as a former politician persuaded her to pursue another route.
“Politics is very slow,” she said. “Proposals pass from one chamber to another and the lobbies are very strong.”
Frustration drove one father to do a long hunger strike outside parliament and other climate activists to launch civil disobedience campaigns.
Observers acknowledge that it may be difficult to prove the women’s suffering is the result of climate change, rather than something else. Twice, local courts have rejected their arguments during the six-year legal battle.
Strasbourg has fast-tracked the hearing, meaning judges are set to make a decision within a year instead of the usual three.
But due to the advanced age of the Swiss women (73 on average), several dozen of them have already died.
“I might no longer be here when the decision comes but at least I did what I could,” said Volkoff.