Teens score ‘global-first’ win against environment minister in Federal Court bout

The court said the minister has a duty of care to limit climate change-related harm to the youth

Teens score ‘global-first’ win against environment minister in Federal Court bout

A group of eight teenagers have scored what one referred to as a “global-first” win for climate change and the youth in a legal battle against Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley that went before the Federal Court.

Justice Mordy Bromberg ruled yesterday that Ley in her position has “a duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing personal injury” to Australian children with regard to a decision that could cause climate change-related harm down the line.

The group of high school students had filed a class action against Ley and subsequently Whitehaven Coal Pty Ltd subsidiary Vickery Coal Pty Ltd in September 2020 over a 2016 application by Whitehaven to expand and extend a coal mine development project in northern NSW. The teenagers argued that the carbon dioxide emissions generated through the extension of the project – approximately 100 million tonnes (Mt) – would cause harm through climatic hazards.

The group claimed that Ley owed the youth a duty of care when it came to making a decision on the project extension based on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

While Ley did not contest the project’s potential harm to the environment, she disputed the existence of duty of care, arguing that injury to the children as a result of her approving the project was not “reasonably foreseeable” and sought a dismissal of the proceeding, according to the Federal Court judgment.

However, Bromberg said he was satisfied that “a reasonable person in the minister’s position would foresee that each of the children is exposed to a real risk of death or personal injury” from climate change-related events like heatwaves and increasingly intense bushfires.

“By reference to contemporary social conditions and community standards, a reasonable minister for the environment ought to have the children in contemplation when facilitating the emission of 100 Mt of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said.

Bromberg, however, declined to grant the teenagers’ application for an interlocutory injunction order to hinder Ley from exercising her power under the EPBC Act “in a manner that would permit the extraction of coal,” given that such an injunction would tie Ley’s hands by effectively leaving her only one choice – to not approve the extension.

Nonetheless, the teenagers, who were represented by Equity Generation Lawyers and Sister Marie Brigid Arthur of the Brigidine Order of Victoria, applauded the judge’s decision.

“I’m thrilled because this is a global first. 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,” 17-year-old Ava Princi said in a media release by Equity Generation Lawyers. “My future – and the future of all young people – depends on Australia joining the world in taking decisive climate action.”

Princi said that the case “is not over,” and that the group remained optimistic the “climate harms from this mine will not happen.”

Seventeen-year-old Laura Kirwan also expressed her elation at the ruling.

“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.”

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