Politics

Some Aussie Teens Just Won A Landmark Case Against The Government About Climate Change

“We understand it is the first time a court of law, anywhere in the world, has ordered a government to specifically protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change.”

Izzy Raj-Seppings

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A landmark class action launched by school students advocating for government responsibility on climate change has resulted in a federal court judgment that the federal environment minister has a duty of care not to cause them harm from climate change.

The class action was launched in September last year by eight teenagers, all involved in the School Strike 4 Climate movement, against the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

It’s a unique case that claimed that the government would be in breach of its duty of care to protect young people from the impacts of climate change if it approved more coal mining.

“I’m thrilled because this is a global first,” said Ava Princi, a 17-year-old climate activist. “We understand it is the first time a court of law, anywhere in the world, has ordered a government to specifically protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change.”

The project the class action was specifically targeting was a proposal to extend an open-cut coal mine in north-western New South Wales.

The proposal for the Vickery Mine, owned by Whitehaven Coal, would see a 25% expansion in the amount of coal extracted from its site if it’s approved.

That extension alone would result in 100 million tonnes of carbon emissions over the next 25 years, equivalent to about 20% of Australia’s total domestic emissions from 2019.

The class action was filed in September, about a month after the approval and Ley agreed that any decision on the Vickery project would be delayed until after this class action case was heard.

The young people were arguing that by approving the mine’s extension, Ley is breaching her duty of care and they were asking the court to grant an injunction to stop the minister from doing so.

David Barnden, the principal lawyer on the case from Equity Generation Lawyers, told Junkee that Ley’s representatives have refuted the teenagers’ arguments on the basis that there should be no duty recognised because the minister is simply doing a job under the environment legislation to approve or not approve projects.

“If these students are our future leaders then we have a lot to be hopeful for in terms of turning around our current emissions profile and the treatment of younger people and minorities.”

While the court ruled in favour of the teenagers on that front, it did not prevent the minister from approving the mine extension in general and it has ordered parties to come together to find a way forward.

Barnden told Junkee he was feeling a little nervous about the judgment in the day prior but working with the students has given him a lot of hope.

“If these students are our future leaders then we have a lot to be hopeful for in terms of turning around our current emissions profile and the treatment of younger people and minorities,” he said.

The students presented a lot of compelling and well-researched evidence regarding the harms to mental health, physical health, and the economic harms of climate change.

By recognising that evidence, it’s a really big step forward for juris prudence in Australia on climate change and could see further mobilisation of class actions like it.