South Koreans sue government over climate change, saying policy violates human rights

By Anthony Kuhn
Plaintiffs, lawyers and activists gather outside South Korea's constitutional court in Seoul ahead of a public hearing for a climate lawsuit on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.
Plaintiffs, lawyers and activists gather outside South Korea’s constitutional court in Seoul ahead of a public hearing for a climate lawsuit on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

SEOUL — As plaintiffs, lawyers and activists chanted slogans outside South Korea’s constitutional court on Tuesday, 17-month-old Woodpecker giggled, sending ripples of laughter through the crowd.

Woodpecker is the nickname of Choi Heewoo, the youngest among more than 250 plaintiffs involved in Woodpecker et. al. v. South Korea, one of four petitions filed since 2020 that the court is considering together in a landmark case.

The plaintiffs argue that by not effectively tackling climate change, their government is violating its citizens’ human rights.

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While there are other cases in progress elsewhere, this is the first in Asia to have a public hearing and plaintiffs say that the court’s verdict, when it comes, is also likely to be the first in Asia.

Woodpecker’s mom and legal representative Lee Donghyun made him a plaintiff while he was still in her womb. She says South Korea’s government is deferring the task of reducing carbon emissions to future administrations and younger generations.

“The more we think this task can be delayed now, the bigger the burden our future generations will have,” she says. “I think it’s the same as passing on a debt to your children.”

Environmentalists criticize carbon emission reduction goals

Plaintiffs argue that South Korea’s goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 compared to 2018 levels is insufficient — it will lead to disastrous climate change and violate their constitutional rights.

South Korea’s human rights watchdog has filed an opinion with the government, stating that climate change is a human rights issue, and that the government is therefore obligated to protect citizens from it.

Lee notes that climate change makes it hard for her parents to farm, and summer heatwaves force her kids off their playgrounds and “ultimately deprive children of their right to grow up healthily.”

Last year, South Korea revised down emissions targets for its industrial sector. The government is likely to argue in the hearings that it’s doing everything it can to minimize climate change, while supporting the nation’s economy, which is highly dependent on fossil fuels and carbon-intensive industries like automobiles and semiconductors.

“The court recognizes the importance and public interest of this case and will make efforts to ensure that deliberations are conducted thoroughly,” said Lee Jongseok, president of the constitutional court.

Lee Donghyun says she feels it’s difficult as an individual to combat climate change. She tries to organize fellow citizens to save electricity, but she says that without fundamental reforms, South Korea won’t be able to meet even its own modest targets.

“That’s why I think it’s time for the government to reorganize our industries and our consumption in a way that reduces carbon emissions,” she argues.

Constitution guarantees the right to a healthy environment

U.S. attorney Thae Khwarg, who is representing middle and high school students in another petition to the court, says lawyers considered filing a civil or administrative lawsuit.

But they decided on going to the constitutional court, he says, partly because it is seen as free from political interference but also because the case is fundamentally about constitutional rights.

Specifically, he notes that article 35 of South Korea’s constitution guarantees citizens the right to a healthy environment.

“We’re not asking for damages,” he says, “we’re really asking the court to just say what they think should be done for the young generation.”

Khwarg argues that forcing younger generations to cut their carbon emissions to resolve a crisis created by older generations’ emissions is a form of discrimination.

The public hearings started two weeks after Europe’s top human rights court ruled that the Swiss government has violated its citizens rights by not doing enough to fight climate change.

“If the constitutional court declares unconstitutional the current laws on climate issues,” Khwarg says, “this could set a precedent for other countries in Asia to follow.”

NPR’s Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.
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