Climate Walk in Manila © Nathaniel Garcia / Greenpeace
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Sekuru, the old man, said: “Look, over here, this dam filled with rainwater every year. But not anymore. The last rain happened three years ago, our fields are dry!” With Sekuru, a small farmer in eastern Zimbabwe, I began my journey into environmental issues. That was in 1990. Thirty years later, our chief concern is the climate crisis: Human-made climate change!  

Growing up in Switzerland, I learned that our glaciers are our water reservoir and that our Alps are full of them. But they are melting. The Pizol glacier which belonged to my immediate homeland is gone – it vanished completely. There will be no more summer hikes up there in all its glory. Sadly, on the contrary, it’s now another wound in a deeply hurt planet.

It’s general wisdom that being active helps feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness. That’s why I plunged into environmental activism, leaving my University job and spending the next decade trying to find financial support for green start-up companies. We failed bitterly, but the platform for environmental concerns was supported by many and it stayed.  And so stayed my motivation, which even experienced a new high thanks to the inspirational youth-led movement Fridays for Future. 

I wondered whether there could be a place for me at 72? Hardly! But then, I discovered my age cohort: The Climate Seniors! 

Climate Seniors Action at European Court of Human Rights in Switzerland. © Kathrin Grissemann / Ex-Press
After the Swiss Federal Supreme Court rejected the filed suit, the Association of Climate Seniors takes their case to the European Court of Human Rights. © Kathrin Grissemann / Ex-Press

What a courageous group of women. Some have frail bodies, bodies that suffer even more from long heat waves than most others would, but we Climate Seniors have very strong minds and an unwavering commitment to the cause. 

In November 2016, we appealed as Climate Seniors to the Swiss Government demanding more rigorous climate targets, because climate change is putting our lives and health at risk. The Government did not listen to us, we were turned down three times. The Supreme Court understood where we were coming from,  given the consequences we would face in the absence of climate protection for us. But it concluded that there is still time to fight climate change and slow down global warming in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.

That’s a bold argument as if to say Switzerland will not invest in the prevention of avalanches, but only address the disaster after it happens. In terms of avalanches or flooding, the thought of prevention is deeply ingrained. However, this perspective wasn’t applied to climate change by the Supreme Court. The irony leaves me feeling both puzzled and angry.

Our Government is failing us. So we are taking our case beyond Switzerland and putting it to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

We will never give up! 

We have a strong wind on our backs: Over 2000 Climate Seniors and many other supporters carry us. This wind has taken us down the River Rhine from Basel, all the way to Strasbourg to file our appeal. Just like many other groups –  who took their Government to court and won –  have been a true inspiration for us, we hope to play this role for others. If we win our case in Strasbourg, I am told, we could literally write history in the field of climate litigation. 

Climate Seniors on MV Beluga in Basel (Travelling to Strasbourg). © Greenpeace / Joël Hunn

Elisabeth Stern is a retired ethnologist who studied psychology in Zurich and also did an MA and PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of California. She worked at the Foundation Pestalozzi Children’s Village for intercultural education. She taught ethnology at the University of Zurich, worked as a research associate at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare and as a Senior Lecturer for intercultural management competence at the University of St. Gallen. She was the co-director of an environmental company for the financing of environmental projects. She is one of the authors of the book “Grünes Geld für unsere Zukunft”.