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First climate lawsuit brought against German government fails

A court has dismissed the first climate lawsuit to be brought against the German government.

For now, three German families have been thwarted in their attempt to sue Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration over its failure to meet climate protection targets, a spokesman for the administrative court in Berlin told CNN.

But they are still hopeful, Roda Verheyen, the plaintiffs’ lawyer said.

“Even if we have lost the day, there are lots of statements that are very important in this judgement that will need to be recognized in policy and law,” Verheyen told CNN, adding that they had been given the opportunity to appeal.

The judges said that, while climate inaction was potentially damaging to human rights, they were unable to determine to what extent or how quickly the government must act, Verheyen added.

The families had pointed to livestock strained by searing heatwaves and reduced crop yields due to extreme weather fluctuations as signs they were already being impacted by climate change. Backed by the environmental group Greenpeace, they were hoping to hold German authorities accountable for their pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Merkel acknowledged last month that Germany was falling short of its original goal of cutting carbon emissions by 40% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. Now the country is aiming for a 55% reduction by 2030.

“We must say with a high degree of probability that the target we set ourselves in 2007 will unfortunately not be met,” Merkel said at the time. “And that’s what’s bothering me, that’s bothering many others.”

Germany has since unveiled a new environmental package, pledging to spend €54 billion ($60 billion) over the next four years to speed up the country’s transition to renewable energy and reduce emissions.

But that’s not good enough, according to the families, who say their organic farms on the North Sea island of Pellworm, in Altes Land near Hamburg, and in Brandenburg are already being impacted by climate change.

The farmers argued that man-made global warming poses an existential threat to their livelihoods, triggering drought, heavy rains and insect infestations, and that Germany — one of the world’s biggest polluters — is partly to blame.

CNN has reached out to the German Ministry of the Environment for comment.

“We are suing to get the government to keep to its targets and implement its measures,” co-plaintiff Franziska Blohm, whose family runs an organic fruit farm near Hamburg, told AFP. “We feel that our livelihoods are threatened. We are afraid that if we don’t do something, the fruit farm won’t survive. The government must now show the way.”

Another plaintiff, Silke Backsen, whose family manages an organic cattle farm on the island of Pellworm, acknowledged climate change was a vast problem that could not be attributed to specific individuals. “But the politicians have the responsibility to do something and act,” she said in a video released by Greenpeace.

“We cannot talk about the climate target for the year 2020 and at the same time continue with deforestation and continue mining coal.”

The Backsens, along with the Blohm and the Lütke Schwienhorst families, argued that Germany’s failure to meet its national 2020 climate target amounts to a violation of their fundamental rights to life and health, property and occupational freedom.

The family farmers demanded that the court orders the federal government to comply with German and European law, taking measures to ensure that the binding target set out for 2020 is met — or to compensate for the excess CO2.

“There are many political opportunities to set the right course and it doesn’t just cause problems for us here. But above all, it causes severe problems in many other countries,” said Lukas Lütke Schwienhorst, whose family has run a dairy farm in Vetschau, Brandenburg, for three decades.

The complaint came on the heels of a successful climate lawsuit brought against the Dutch government by the Urgenda campaign, part of a wave of cases putting pressure on politicians to act on ecological breakdown. Last year, a court in The Hague ordered the Netherlands to cut greenhouse gas emission faster than previously planned. The verdict was seen as paving the way for similar actions in Switzerland, Norway, Uganda and elsewhere.

Verheyen, their lawyer, said that the fact that these cases exist is a sign that “governments are not working.”

“Citizens and organizations worldwide are taking the legal route, which is costly and not easy in any way. It shows you not enough is being done. I would never advise NGOs to take a legal route like this, but there simply isn’t another way.”