Climate scientists weigh in as appeal begins against activists in Credit Suisse case

This game of tennis questions the foundations of justice: can we act illegally if the state has failed in its duties? Photo: Keystone/Martial Trezzini

On Tuesday, September 22, three judges from the criminal appeal court in the canton of Vaud will have the heavy task of examining the appeal filed by the public prosecutor against the acquittal of the twelve climate activists. 

In a historic decision by the Court of Renens last January, the young activists were exonerated from all criminal liability after being accused of having illegally entered one of Credit Suisse’s branches in November 2018.

The mainly student protestors had staged a tennis match on the premises in a stunt intended to urge Roger Federer to cut his sponsorship ties with Credit Suisse over its investments in fossil fuels.

Why are we talking about it? On the eve of this trial, 21 leading climatologists, Swiss and foreign, signed a long letter intended for defense lawyers.

Among them are the French Valérie Masson-Delmotte and Jean Jouzel, as well as the Swiss Martine Rebetez, Joeri Rogeli or Retto Knutti. Expressing their concern, they detail the effects of global warming, Switzerland's insufficient efforts, especially with regard to the commitments made by signing the Paris Agreement and the impact of fossil fuels. “It's new. Renowned climatologists come out of the woods on the occasion of a specific trial to denounce the practices of a bank,” said Irène Wettstein, who, with twelve other lawyers, works pro bono on the defense side.

The law and its interpretation. The court hearing comes a day after the trial of an activist who painted the facade of Credit Suisse in Geneva in October 2018. He had been convicted in the first instance for damage to property. In this case, it is the defense that lodged the appeal, in an attempt to have the state of lawful necessity recognized. This article of the penal code, on which the acquittal of the Vaudois activists is based, states that a crime or an offense is not punishable if it is committed in the face of imminent danger.

In the spirit of the law, the state of lawful necessity rather applies, for example, to a battered woman who would seriously injure or even kill her spouse. But unlike his Geneva counterpart, the Vaud judge Philippe Colelough reinterpreted this notion, recognizing the need to act immediately against climate change, if necessary through civil disobedience.

Immediate action. In their letter, these 21 climatologists answer 14 questions posed by defense lawyers. Concerning the urgency, there is no room for doubt: "Strong and lasting actions must be taken immediately" so that the global rise in temperatures does not exceed the thresholds set in the Paris Agreement, established at 1.5 degree. “Any delay will create increased and potentially irreversible risk. (…) Any delay in implementing effective measures to reduce emissions today means that we will have to take even more drastic measures (…) to try to achieve the set climate targets, which would very likely become unachievable. "

The impact of fossil fuels, at the heart of the activists' approach, is clearly described: "Human activities (use of fossil fuels and land) are responsible for almost all of the global warming observed so far. (1.1 degrees). " And again: "Human CO2 emissions are responsible for about 80 per cent of the warming due to the increase in greenhouse gases."

Known consequences. If the damage observed is already numerous and sometimes irreversible, "the future damage will be even more important", underline the experts. Acidification of the oceans, climate change, marked by increasingly recurring extreme events, pollution, invasion of toxic species, loss of biodiversity and melting ice are all phenomena already observed and bound to worsen if nothing is happened. done to stem their causes. These manifestations of climate change directly affect food security, by reducing available resources (desertification, degradation of agricultural land, lack of water, etc.).

Swiss delay. In this alarming context, Switzerland has not reduced its CO2 emissions. On the contrary, it is lagging far behind in implementing appropriate legislation. It was even “explicitly excluded” from a study examining successes in decarbonisation. Its record is lower than that of countries like Bulgaria and Croatia, but also France, Italy, Germany and the United States. In the new CO2 law, parliament plans to introduce as a target a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. However, it plans to include offsetting emissions abroad by 25 per cent - a sign of "limited ambitions" for real reductions in emissions made in Switzerland.

The scientists conclude their letter by expressing their concern, which arises in particular from the "discrepancy between the commitments made (...) and the capacity and will to actually implement them."

Beyond the case. By delivering its verdict on Thursday, the Court of Criminal Appeal will rule on much more than a simple home invasion. It is up to the judge to give justice its real role of third power. As Irène Wettstein explained to in March, justice is the guarantor of the national and international legal framework which provides for the right to health of citizens. This judgment will say whether the state will be forced to admit that it has failed in its duties and whether it is legitimate to sound the alarm, including by using illegal means.


This article was originally published in French on Heidi News