Court Rules Australian Government Has Duty to Protect Children, Environment From Climate Impacts

Australian youth lead a September 20, 2019 rally and march for climate action in Melbourne, Victoria. (Photo: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Court Rules Australian Government Has Duty to Protect Children, Environment From Climate Impacts

"This is the first time a court of law, anywhere in the world, has recognized that a government minister has a duty of care to protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change."

Climate campaigners on Thursday hailed a landmark decision from an Australian federal judge who ruled that the country's government has a duty to protect children and the environment from the impacts of the climate emergency.

"My future--and the future of all young people--depends on Australia stepping away from fossil fuel projects and joining the world in taking decisive climate action."
--Ava Princi, plaintiff

The Sydney Morning Heraldreports Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled that Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care to protect the one million Australian children who are expected to be hospitalized at least once in their lives due to heat stress, and that the Great Barrier Reef and eucalyptus forests will die absent action to combat climate change.

Bromberg's ruling came in a case brought by eight high school students who met through the School Strike for Climate movement and a nun who acted as their legal representative. While the court recognized the government's duty of care, it dismissed the plaintiffs' bid for an injunction to stop Ley from green-lighting the expansion of Whitehaven Coal's Vickery mine near Gunnedah, New South Wales.

Mordecai wrote in a judgment summary that the potential harm caused by the climate emergency "may fairly be described as catastrophic, particularly should global average surface temperatures rise to and exceed 3 degrees beyond the pre-industrial level."

According to the Morning Herald:

The federal court judge accepted evidence that climate change was caused by carbon dioxide emissions, that it was probably already unlikely to be halted without temporarily passing the target of 1.5 degrees, and that if allowed to continue above two degrees unchecked it would cause tipping points to be triggered leading to average global surface temperatures to rise by four degrees by the end of the century, unleashing massive environmental destruction.

"Many thousands will suffer premature death from heat stress or bushfire smoke," Mordecai wrote in his summary. "Substantial economic loss and property damage will be experienced."

The judge also acknowledged that, if approved, the Vickery expansion would result in an additional 100 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

However, in denying the injunction, Mordecai wrote that he was not satisfied that "a reasonable apprehension of breach of the duty of care by the minister has been established."

Despite the injunction defeat, plaintiffs' attorney David Barnden hailed the ruling as a historic win.

"This is an amazing recognition that people in power must not harm younger people by their decisions," he told the Morning Herald.

One of the plaintiffs, 17-year-old Ava Princi, said after the ruling that the fight is "not over yet."

"There will be further submissions on what the duty of care means for the minister's decision and the mine," Princi said in a statement. "I am thrilled because this is a landmark decision. This is the first time a court of law, anywhere in the world, has recognized that a government minister has a duty of care to protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change."

"My future--and the future of all young people--depends on Australia stepping away from fossil fuel projects and joining the world in taking decisive climate action," she added.

International climate activists also welcomed the ruling.

"This is a huge win for the whole climate movement... Of course the action needed is still nowhere in sight, but these court cases are symbolic breaking points that could have huge snowball effects."
--Greta Thunberg,
climate campaigner

"This is a huge win for the whole climate movement," Fridays for Future founder Greta Thunberg tweeted Thursday. "A big congratulations to the brave Australian teenagers who have achieved this. Of course the action needed is still nowhere in sight, but these court cases are symbolic breaking points that could have huge snowball effects."

The Australian ruling was the latest blow in a bad week for the global fossil fuel industry. In a decision called a "landslide victory for climate justice," a Dutch court on Wednesday ordered Shell to slash its carbon emissions by 45% by the end of the decade.

Also on Wednesday, ExxonMobil and Chevron--the two largest U.S. oil companies--suffered shareholder backlash over the firms' lack of strategy for addressing the climate emergency.

Meanwhile, the World Meteorological Organization warned Thursday there's a 40% chance the planet will temporarily hit 1.5degC of warming in the next five years.

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