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Climate teens win class action against federal government

The Australian Federal Court in Sydney has ruled that Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care not to cause harm to young people by exacerbating the effects of climate change. Photo: State Library of NSW

By ALLISON HORE

In a world first decision, the Australian Federal Court has ruled that Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care not to cause harm to young people by exacerbating the effects of climate change. 

The class action against Minister Ley was filed by eight high school students in September last year. The teenagers called on the court to recognise the Minister has a duty to protect young people around Australia from future climate change harms. 

17 year-old Ava Princi was one of the students behind the lawsuit. She said she was “thrilled” by the court’s decision.

“I’m thrilled because this is a global first,” she said. 

“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 class action was triggered by the NSW Independent Planning Commission’s approval of an expansion of the Vickery coal mine in northern NSW last year. In their case, the teenage climate activists were represented by Equity Generation Lawyers and their litigation guardian Sister Brigid Arthur.

The judge heard evidence brought by independent experts that carbon emissions released from mining and burning fossil fuels will contribute to wide-ranging harms to young people. Based on these accounts, he decided a “reasonable person” in the minister’s position could foresee damage from the expansion of the mine. 

Student protesters call on the government to take action on climate change. Photo: Christine Chen

“The evidence demonstrates that a reasonable person in the position of the minister would foresee that, by reason of the extension project’s effect on increased CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and the consequential increase in global surface temperatures, each of the children is exposed to a risk of death or other personal injury,” Justice Mordy Bromberg said in his judgement. 

“The evidence therefore establishes an essential precondition for the law of negligence to recognise a duty of care owed by the minister to each of the children.”

Injunction not granted

Despite the court’s recognition of the Minister’s duty of care, the teens failed in their bid to have an injunction put on the mine expansion. The expansion would allow for 25 percent more coal to be extracted, resulting in 100 million tonnes of carbon emissions over the next 25 years.

Justice Bromberg said he was not satisfied by the evidence a “reasonable apprehension of breach of the duty of care by the minister has been established.”

But for the students involved in the case, the recognition of the minister’s duty of care was more than enough cause for celebration. Laura Kirwan, 17, another student behind the class action, said she felt “elated” by the court’s decision

“This is a victory for young people everywhere. The case was about young people stepping up and demanding more from the adults whose actions are determining our future wellbeing,” she said. 

“Our voices are powerful and I hope this case inspires more young people to push for stronger, faster and deeper cuts to carbon emissions.”

Minister Ley is yet to comment on the court’s ruling. A spokesperson for her office told the ABC that the Morrison government was “considering the judgement” and would have more to say soon.

Climate strikers gathered in a COVID-safe group at Martin Place. Photo: Allison Hore

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