What do civil organizations need to fight for climate rights?
In 2022, BlueLink set out to raise the awareness of Bulgarian citizens on their climate rights and the country’s climate change adaptation measures. This was done as part of the international initiative “Discussions and Actions on Climate and Environment” (DACE) led by the pan-European environmental law organisation Justice and Environment (J&E). The project spans across Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Slovenia, and Spain. Besides raising people’s awareness on climate rights and climate adaptation, the project aims to improve people’s access to justice and facilitate their participation in decision-making that affects them.
Our first step in the initiative was to analyse the existing or emerging types of climate rights at the international, European, and national levels in order to better answer the question who, when and how can exercise climate rights. You can find the Bulgarian legal study here.
Our next step was to survey people’s understanding of what climate rights are, their readiness to exercise them, and their actions in this direction so far. Our target groups were local communities affected by climate change, climate activists, environmental organizations, and other concerned citizens.
The main questions we sought to answer were:
• How aware are the target groups of the concept of climate rights?
• To what extent are they ready to exercise their climate rights?
• Do they need to extend the scope of their climate rights?
Our survey was filled out by 103 people from 3 countries. The main finding of the opinion poll was that 70% of respondents need reliable information on climate change. When asked "What climate rights actions have you taken so far?" ;"What actions are you willing to take in the future?"; and "What support would you need to protect your climate rights?" most respondents said they have searched for reliable information on climate change and need to continue to search and receive reliable information in order to uphold their rights.
When asked "Which of the following rights are related to climate?" 92.2% of respondents indicated the right to a healthy living environment. Some 86.4% of respondents indicated the right to participate in climate decision-making and 83.5% mentioned the right to social justice. When asked "What other climate rights are there?" respondents highlighted the right to information, the right to be protected from disinformation, the right to make an informed choice, etc. When asked "Would you like to stand up for your own or other people's climate rights in the future?” 75.5% said they would, while 23.5% were hesitant. Only 1% answered negatively. When asked "Which of the listed forms of action would you take?” most respondents (84.4%) said they would search for reliable information. A big share (54.2%) also said they would participate in the creation of climate laws and policies (54.2%). You can find a presentation on the survey's findings here (in Bulgarian).
After processing the results of the survey, we proceeded to refine them within a focus group of 15 representatives of civil society organisations active in the field of environmental protection, human rights and climate policies. The focus group helped us see what specific type of information related to climate rights the organisations need.
The main type of information need mentioned was reliable expertise to serve as evidence in court cases. Judges are not experts on climate or climate policies, but need to refer to experts -- this is why the presence of accessible, reliable, independent expertise is crucial for wining a case. The more scientific information the public has, and the more accessible and understandable it is, the more easily people can defend their rights. Conversely, lack of information means lack of understanding of the problem and lack of public commitment to solving it.
Unfortunately, Bulgarian institutions do not conduct targeted information campaigns to inform citizens about climate change and climate change adaptation policies. They are even often unwilling to provide basic information, such as data from air quality measurement stations. Several participants mentioned that institutions deliberately place stations away from polluters in order to report normal pollution levels. How can people prove pollution in court then? All lawsuits start with the collection of information. Without it, the team cannot assess what steps it can take.
Apart from basic environmental information, institutions refuse to provide other types of public information as well. An example of this is the claim of Sofia Municipality that the municipality's air quality plan is an internal administrative document that is not subject to public and judicial review. Sofia’s Municipality’s refusal to make the plan public let to a criminal procedure in the EU against Bulgaria.
When institutions do provide information, it is either difficult to understand or incomplete, some respondents pointed out. Consideration should be given to how institutions can be incentivised to provide information in a more accessible way, one respondent said.
Another problem identified was that the expertise required in court is complex and expensive. For example, Bulgarian experts had no previous experience in making the necessary assessment in the case against Thermal Power Plant Maritsa Iztok 2. There was no mechanism or methodology for the claimant to prove that the thermal power plant's claims were untrue. The court had, on the one hand, the expert opinion of the TPP's consultants and, on the other hand, the expert opinion of the plaintiffs from the NGOs that brought the case.
In addition, it is difficult to guarantee independent expertise. Expertise must be paid for by the party requesting it. In such a situation, winning a case rests on the ability of the claimant to secure funding. One of the lawyers in the focus group said, "These cases are decided by the expertise. There is no guarantee of expertise being independent."
One of the proposals for addressing the problem of insufficient and dependent expertise was to create an independent scientific council under the Council of Ministers. This independent council of experts should offer good, independent expertise. The council must also equally represent citizens, business, municipalities, administration.
This publication is part of the “Discussions and Actions on Climate and Environment” (DACE) project, funded by the European Union and coordinated by the European Justice and Environment (J&E) network in six European countries. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the BlueLink Foundation or the European Commission.