Australian government to face ‘landmark’ climate class action

Australian government to face ‘landmark’ climate class action

26 October 2021 By Lauren Croft
climate class action

Island communities have demanded the Australian government take action regarding the climate crisis in a landmark class action case.

First Nations leaders from the remote islands of Boigu and Saibai in Gudamalulgal in the Torres Strait Islands are taking the Australian federal government to court in a bid to prevent the destruction of their communities as a result of climate change.

This is the first climate class action brought by First Nations people in Australia and has the potential to not only protect the Gudamalulgal and all Zenadth Kes communities but to help combat the climate crisis before it impacts Australian communities.

In the landmark case, plaintiffs Wadhuam (maternal uncle) Paul Kabai and Wadhuam Pabai Pabai will make the argument that the federal government has a legal responsibility to ensure Torres Strait Islander people are not harmed by the climate crisis and demand action be taken.

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“Our ancestors have lived on these islands for more than 65,000 years. But the government’s failure to prevent the climate crisis means our islands could be flooded, our soils ruined by salt, and our communities forced to leave. Becoming climate refugees means losing everything: our homes, our culture, our stories, and our identity,” Mr Kabai said.

“If you take away our homelands, we don’t know who we are. We have a cultural responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen and to protect country and our communities, culture and spirituality from climate change.”

Torres Strait Islander communities are on the frontline of the climate crisis and face an existential challenge due to rising sea levels driven by the burning of coal, oil and gas. If global temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees, then many islands in Gudamalulgal will become uninhabitable – meaning that Torres Strait Islander people would become Australia’s first climate refugees.

As such, traditional owners Mr Pabai and Mr Kabai are seeking an order from the court that requires the federal government to take steps to prevent this harm to their communities by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“I can’t imagine being forced to leave Boigu because this island is me, and I am this island. There are 65,000 years of wealth and experience here,” Mr Pabai said.

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“Losing Boigu will mean losing that. If you take us away from this island, then we’re nothing. It’s like the Stolen Generation, you take people away from their tribal land, they become nobodies.”

The case will be conducted by specialist class action and public interest law firm Phi Finney McDonald with the plaintiffs represented in court by Fiona McLeod SC. Brett Spiegel, principal lawyer at Phi Finney McDonald, said that “the Australian government owes a legal duty to Paul, Pabai, and all Torres Strait Islanders not to destroy their land, culture and identity”.

“Paul and Pabai bring this action to require Australia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that will prevent Torres Strait Islanders from becoming climate refugees. Phi Finney McDonald is proud to represent Paul and Pabai in their fight to save their homeland,” he said.

Whilst the Australian government is currently discussing whether to set 2050 “net zero” emissions targets, experts have warned this alone will not be enough to prevent disaster in the Torres Strait.

Additionally, leading climate scientists on the Climate Targets Panel have calculated that Australia’s greenhouse emissions need to be reduced by 74 per cent by 2030 (from levels in 2005) and to net zero by 2035 to keep global heating to below 1.5 degrees and avoid the destruction of Torres Strait Islander communities.

The litigation is being supported by both public interest advocacy organisations, Grata Fund and international not-for-profit the Urgenda Foundation.

Grata Fund founder and executive director Isabelle Reinecke said that the case could have a massive impact on Torres Strait Island communities.

“People across the country, and in particular First Nations communities, are already being harmed by the government’s failure to take the climate crisis seriously,” she said.

“We’re proud to support Paul and Pabai as they take a stand on behalf of their communities. Everyone is entitled to defend their rights in court, and we believe they have a great case that could make history.”

Australian government to face ‘landmark’ climate class action
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