South Korea's Climate Policy Challenged by a Fetus

Constitutional Court to rule on landmark case alleging violation of human rights
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 22, 2024 8:53 AM CDT
A Bunch of Kids Challenge South Korea's Climate Policy
South Korea's Constitutional Court Chief Justice Yoo Nam-seok, top center, and other judges are seen at the Constitutional Court in Seoul on July 25, 2023.   (Yonhap via AP)

What right does a child, even a fetus, have to grow up in a healthy environment? It's a question at the heart of "the first lawsuit to challenge national climate policies in East Asia," per Nature. Resulting from the merger of four separate lawsuits filed between 2020 and 2023, the landmark challenge before South Korea's Constitutional Court sees lawyers representing dozens of adults, more than 60 children, even a one-time fetus, arguing the government isn't doing enough to address climate change. In one of the four cases, parents sued on behalf of their children, including a then-20-week-old fetus nicknamed Woodpecker who is now a 1-year-old boy.

Sejong Youn, legal counsel for the plaintiffs, hopes a ruling will be issued before South Korea's government brings revised climate plans before the United Nations later this year. The revised plans will lay out the country's climate strategy through 2035. Under its current plans, South Korea aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 40% of 2018 levels by 2030, per Nature. Experts say South Korea is unlikely to meet that goal, per AFP. But even if all countries did, temperatures would still climb three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100—a devastating outcome and a violation of constitutional rights to life, property, the pursuit of happiness, and a healthy environment, according to the plaintiffs.

"When the Earth's temperature rises two degrees Celsius more, none of the adults who are talking about this right now will still be around," 12-year-old plaintiff Han Jeah tells AFP. "It is absolutely not fair to ask us [as children] to solve the problem." "Considering the future of humanity, it's obvious the government should make more active efforts to ensure our survival amid the climate crisis," adds Woodpecker's mother, Lee Dong-hyun. "I would be so sorry if my children never experienced a beautiful spring day."

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The Constitutional Court, one of South Korea's highest courts, held its second and final hearing on the case Tuesday. If judges rule in favor of the plaintiffs, the hope is "we will be able to enhance the government's climate ambitions" and inspire similar actions around the world, Youn tells Nature. If the plaintiffs lose the case, the court may be less likely to hear similar cases in the future, says Dr. Mingzhe Zhu of the University of Glasgow, who studies climate change litigation. But "you can lose beautifully in the sense that you provoked social awareness," Zhu adds, per Nature. (More climate change stories.)

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