In a landmark legal case, two Torres Strait Islander leaders are suing the Australian government for failing to protect the disproportionately affected Torres Strait Island people against harm from climate change. Wadhuam Paul Kabai, Wadhuam Pabai Paibai, and their team allege the government breached its duty of caring for the island community by not taking greater steps to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels from climate change. They will argue that it needs to dramatically reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions to stop the loss of the Torres Strait Islanders’ home and culture, and seek a judicial order stating such.
“[W]e’ll lose everything,” Kabai told the ABC. “[W]e’re not going to survive if the government is not going to help us.” As sea levels rise dramatically, the island’s traditional owners are seeing the direct effects of climate change already, with worsening coastal erosion, storms, and king tides. Results would be catastrophic, their vital cultural sites will be washed away and the soil unable to be farmed due to saltwater. The two men worry that the islands would become uninhabitable, leaving the islanders to become Australia’s first climate refugees, according to the Canberra Times.
“[B]ecoming climate refugees means losing everything: our homes, our culture, our stories and our identity. If you take away our homelands, we don’t know who we are.” Kabai added in a statement. Principal lawyer on Kabai and Pabai’s case Brett Spiegel noted that “[A]ustralia’s record on climate change is one of the worst of all industrialized nations.” Indeed, Australia’s federal government has received worldwide criticism for its lack of detail around climate change mitigation policies. Ahead of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Australia’s pledge has been deemed the weakest, failing to match other countries’ “ratcheting up” of their climate change response policies.
Crucially, the current class action is being modeled on a similar successful Dutch case brought by 886 Dutch citizens in 2015, arguing that the Dutch government had a legal responsibility to protect them against climate change. The court ordered the Dutch government to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020, which has since implemented drastic climate change prevention measures to meet. International climate change lawyer Tessa Khan was involved in the original case, saying that in response to the ruling, the government “slashed the country’s emissions at a national level by a significant amount. It’s invested billions of euros in a range of other carbon-cutting measures.”
Whether the success of the Dutch case will have a positive effect on Kabai and Pabai’s case remains to be seen. The Dutch case relied on the European Convention of Human Rights, while Australian law does not have an applicable equivalent. However, the case that Kabai and Pabai are bringing is an important one that needs to hold the Australian government to accountable. If successful, its effects would be far-reaching, potentially influencing similar judicial decisions on climate change across the world.
Government inaction means that Torres Strait Islanders risk not only losing their homes but their way of life. As the first to be affected by climate change, island communities like theirs face the rapidly approaching reality that if government leaders do not step up and do something now, we will not have a world left to save. Furthermore, reducing land and resources increases the chance for conflict, resulting in far-reaching consequences that we may not see coming until it is too late.
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