The onset of global warming has led to the first climate-related lawsuit filed by Indigenous Australians, as they declare it is no longer sustainable.
Aunty McRose Elu explains that due to the impacts of climate change, they are no longer able to tend to their gardens on Saibai Island in the Torres Strait. Instead, they must travel long distances to gather seafood. These changes have greatly affected the way of life for the island’s residents.
“They reside in a state of both fear and curiosity about the unknown outcome, as they witness the gradual erosion of the shorelines.”
Aunty McRose, an elder from Saibai, is a part of the initial group of Indigenous Australians to take legal action against climate damage.
This week, she appeared in the federal court in Melbourne as hearings resumed for the significant Australian climate case. The case accuses the federal government of neglecting to safeguard Torres Strait Islanders who are most affected by climate change.
The argument presented suggests that the government has not adequately addressed the prevention of future harm caused by climate change, nor has it adequately addressed the harms that have already occurred in the Torres Strait due to global warming.
The legal dispute is based on the Urgenda climate case that was brought against the Dutch government. In this case, the Urgenda Foundation and 886 individuals sued the Dutch government for not taking sufficient action to combat climate change.
This was the first instance worldwide where citizens successfully argued that their government had a legal obligation to address the dangers of climate change. As a result, the court ruled that the Dutch government must take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The primary claimants in the Australian lawsuit are elders of the Torres Strait community, Uncle Pabai Pabai and Uncle Paul Kabai from Boigu and Saibai islands. They are requesting for the Australian government to implement measures to protect their communities from climate damage, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with scientific findings.
Australia aims to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, however, according to experts, this may not be sufficient to avert potential catastrophe in the Torres Strait region.
Phi Finney McDonald, a law firm, represents Uncle Pabai, Uncle Paul, and their respective communities. The Urgenda Foundation and Grata Fund, a public interest organization that assists individuals in obtaining legal representation, are supporting their case.
The scientific case
The court proceedings in Melbourne, presided over by Justice Michael Wigney, will extend for at least one more week and are featuring testimony from some of Australia’s most respected scientists.
During the hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, the court received testimony from two distinguished experts: Prof David Karoly, a renowned authority on atmospheric climate science, and Prof Terry Hughes, a globally recognized expert in marine biology.
Karoly testified in court that the primary danger to the natural environment of the Torres Strait Islands is caused by human-induced climate change.
Hughes provided a thorough explanation of how climate change is currently and will continue to affect marine species and ecosystems. One example he mentioned was the observed decrease in seagrass in the Torres Strait, which directly affects the food source of dugongs.
During the questioning process, the legal team representing the government focused on individual sentences from expert reports and requested that the scientists clarify the reasoning behind their perspectives.
According to Isabelle Reinecke, the executive director of Grata Fund, there has been a shift in strategy compared to previous climate cases, like the Sharma case, where the government was more willing to acknowledge the firmly established science behind climate change.
She suggests that their actions stem from a perceived risk in this case and similar cases, and they are making every effort to prevent such risks from arising.
Their method has shifted and this truly reflects the government’s growing concern towards these cases.
According to Reinecke, the hearings represent a critical progression in the most important climate case thus far, which aims to hold the Australian government responsible for the consequences of its shortcomings on climate change.
In June, previous hearings took place in the Torres Strait region to enable the court to visit the islands and observe the current effects of climate change.
Homes on Saibai Island are currently experiencing flooding from high tides, the cemetery is facing issues from erosion, and protective sea walls have been constructed.
Aunty McRose is referring to the inability of individuals to garden due to the presence of saltwater in their garden plots.
She expresses that it is no longer feasible to sustain vegetables and perform such actions.
The spokesperson of the climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, stated that it would not be suitable to provide any comments on the ongoing legal proceedings until they are resolved in court.
According to them, the previous Coalition government did not take any action for ten years. However, we are now enacting effective measures to reduce pollution. These measures include passing laws to decrease emissions by more than 200 million tonnes from our biggest industrial contributors by 2030.
During the ministerial round table on climate change in June 2022, traditional owners emphasized that the people of Torres Strait face significant danger from the impacts of climate change.
Uncle Paul inquired about our destination in the event that our islands become submerged, ahead of Wednesday’s Melbourne hearing.
“We are currently in Melbourne court, as it is our duty to safeguard our homelands, communities, and culture against the effects of climate change for future generations.”
We urge the government to confront the reality of the consequences if they continue to ignore our voices and the findings of science.