In a global first, Australia’s federal court has ruled that the country’s government is legally obliged to protect young people against future harms from the climate crisis.
The suit, launched by eight teens and Sister Brigid Arthur, an 86-year-old nun who volunteered to be their litigation guardian, asked the courts to block federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley from approving a proposal to expand a coal mine in New South Wales, reports The Guardian.
“The court heard the expansion of the mine could lead to an extra 100 million tonnes of CO2—about 20% of Australia’s annual climate footprint—being released into the atmosphere as the extracted coal is shipped overseas and burned to make steel and generate electricity.”
While their application for an injunction was declined, the judge accepted the teens’ claim that Ley has “a duty of care to not act in a way that would cause future harm to younger people”.
The youths’ lawyer, David Barnden, described the judgement by Justice Mordecai Bromberg as “historic” and “amazing,” noting that it is “the first time in the world that such a duty of care has been recognized, especially in a common law country.”
Barnden added that Bromberg is now taking submissions that will determine exactly what Ley’s duty of care will mean for the mine extension.
In his judgement, Bromberg said the potential climate harms awaiting children alive today “may fairly be described as catastrophic, particularly should global average surface temperatures rise to and exceed 3°C beyond the pre-industrial level.” Specifically, he said, “one million of today’s Australian children are expected to suffer at least one heat stress episode serious enough to require acute care in a hospital” and “many thousands will suffer premature death from heat stress or bushfire smoke.”
In a separate Guardian op ed, Ava Princi, one of the teen plaintiffs in the case, writes that the judge’s decision “validated the vulnerability of young people like myself—passionate climate warriors, sure, but also always scared, disempowered, and facing inconceivable futures that adults won’t have to live through.”