Is Spain legally ready to address climate change?

How do human rights relate to the climate crisis? What mechanisms does the Spanish legal system provide to protect the climate? Why is “climate litigation” increasing? Are the laws being effectively applied? What is the role of the media? These questions are of high relevance in the current context of climate emergency faced by the planet and were debated during the conference ‘Climate rights and climate advocacy: how to address climate change in the courts and in the media’, held last Monday 29 January in the Buero Vallejo Hall of the Carlos III University of Madrid.

During the event, the director of IIDMA, Ana Barreira, presented the report ‘Climate rights: legal mechanisms for climate advocacy in Spain’, which analyses the development and evolution of ‘climate rights’, identifies different litigation cases addressing the protection of those rights and provides an overview of the mechanisms existing in Spain for climate advocacy. “The Spanish legal order recognizes climate rights and offers mechanisms to protect the climate, but it must be effectively implemented by both public and private sectors to ensure its compliance”, stated Barreira.

The legal response to this global problem provided by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement has driven changes in various economic sectors. However, scientific evidence shows that some measures have been taken too slowly or not at all.

This lack of compliance has made citizens more willing to go to court to demand accountability. As shown by the public opinion survey “Knowledge and Perception of Climate Change in Spain” presented by IIDMA in 2023, almost 30% of respondents consider that their basic rights are affected by climate change. Of these, 64.5% would personally go to court to advocate for their rights, compared to 23.5% who would not and 12% who do not know/did not answer [The full survey is available here].

The IIDMA report presented today also reviews the most relevant climate litigation cases in the European Court of Human Rights – Case “Duarte AgosRnho and others vs. Portugal’, case ‘Verein KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz and others vs. Switzerland’, ‘Careme vs. France’— as well as other cases related to corporate responsibility, among others.

Likewise, the report provides an in-depth analysis of ‘climate rights’ in Spain, based on the Spanish Constitution and the national strategic energy and climate framework – comprising Law 7/2021 of 20 May on climate change and energy transition, the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) and the Just Transition Strategy (JTS).

It also outlines the obligations of the private sector and the safeguards for access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters.

An UNEP report notes the existence of seventeen climate litigation cases in Spain. However, IIDMA has detected that many of the cases identified in said report are not strictly climate-related (for example, the ‘Prestige case’, caused by an oil spill off the Galician coast in 2002). Furthermore, Ana Barreira claimed that in Spain a large part of these matters are settled before the contentious-administrative or criminal courts. In this sense, IIDMA has long been reminding us of the need to create specialized courts or chambers that allow a more specific approach to environmental conflicts considering their high complexity.

The role of the media

The second part of the event focused on the role of the media. In times of over-information, there is an urgent need for the media to reflect on what their role should be when addressing the climate crisis. The professionals responsible of informing society about climate issues have the task of disseminating scientific research in different narrative formats adapted to different audiences, “popularizing” specific terminology key for understanding the phenomena and providing the media with the necessary information to help them understand the matter (“GHG emissions”, “carbon footprint”, “decarbonization” etc.,). They also have the task to refute rumours and fake news, connect climate change with extreme meteorological phenomenon (without falling into alarmism or sensationalism), and promote the exercise of independent journalism (away from content paid for by polluting companies promoting greenwashing), among others.

Álvaro Caballero, journalist at who writes regularly on climate and the environment, considers that “climate information faces two major challenges. The first is the difficulty of bringing the importance of such a huge problem to the general public, which at the same time it is perceived as something abstract and distant from our daily lives“. In this regard, it is essential to explain to citizens that global warming is already here and has an impact on our daily lives”. Another big challenge is to report it without being defeatist, which can lead readers or viewers to stop reading the news or turn off the TV – If nothing can be done to solve the problem, why continue to watch depressing news?,” he added.

The event, which was moderated by Montserrat Abad, Professor of Public International Law and co-director of the International Secretariat of the International Council of Environmental Law (ICEL), is part of the ‘Discussions and Actions on Climate and Environment’ (DACE) Project. The DACE Project, financed by the European Union (EU) and coordinated by the association Justice & Environment (J&E) brings together six environmental law organisations from Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Slovenia and Spain to jointly address issues related to law and climate change.

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