Teenage Activists Win Climate Duty-of-Care Ruling

On Thursday, a Federal Court judge delivered his ruling on a group of teenagers’ class action against a coal mine expansion in Gunnedah, NSW, adjacent to the Liverpool Plains. The judge found that in assessing environmentally sensitive projects requiring ministerial review, the federal Environment Minister “has a duty to take reasonable care … to avoid causing personal injury or death to persons who were under 18 years of age … arising from emissions of carbon dioxide.”

The judge considered scientific evidence of probable harms from global warming to Australian young people extensively. This included the fact that one million of children today are expected to be hospitalised for heat stress during their lifetimes. 

“It is difficult to characterise in a single phrase the devastation that the plausible evidence presented in this proceeding forecasts for the children,” said Justice Bromberg. “As Australian adults know their country, Australia will be lost and the world as we know it gone as well.”

According to ANU-based legal expert Kieran Pender, because the judgement is based on the common law of negligence, it cannot be repealed by new legislation. The Environment Ministry will be open to litigation on the grounds of negligence from climate harms, assuming the judgement stands on appeal. 

The judicial activists were jubilant in the wake of the judgement, which some are describing as a landmark. “It’s heartbreaking that young people even have to take to the courts to fight for basic protection against the climate crisis, when we’re so obviously facing its impacts right now,” said lead litigant, 16 year-old Anjali Sharma. “But after too many years of politicians turning a blind eye, today’s historic ruling will make it harder for them to continue to approve large-scale fossil fuel projects that will only fast-track the climate crisis.”

The conservative press is adamant that the judge usurped the prerogative of Parliament in making the judgement. But whether the judgement will in fact make it harder for fossil fuel companies remains to be seen. 

Australia’s environment ministers have routinely disregarded their duties over the years. Last year, an Auditor-General’s report found that the Environment Ministry has approved 99.66% of projects referred to it for assessment since the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was legislated in 1999.

Justice Bromberg has now referred the Gunnedah mine expansion back to the Environment Minister, Sussan Ley. We will be closely following how Ley handles trying to approve the mine within the bounds of this new climate change duty-of-care.

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