By Celine Lai
“This is the first time a court of law, anywhere in the world, has recognised that a government minister has a duty of care to protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change,” said Ava Princi, one of the claimants.
The class action case was brought on behalf of all Australian children and teenagers, against Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
Their aim was to prevent Minister Ley from possibly approving the Whitehaven coal mine extension project, near Gunnedah in New South Wales.
The Conversation reports that eight Aussie teens, aged between 13 and 17, argued that approving this project would endanger their future because of climate hazards, including the cause of injury, ill health or death, and economic losses.
The case concerns a proposal to construct an open-cut coal mine, about 25 kilometres north of the NSW town of Gunnedah. It’s an extension project, meaning that it will expand a mine which has already been approved, increasing the mine’s coal production by about 25%, and resulting in a further 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gases over the life of the project. The coal would be exported.
Short-term financial gain can have detrimental impacts on the health and economic wellbeing of those who can’t vote yet.
The Court needed to consider whether a duty of care exists in Australian law. There is no statutory duty (under laws created by the parliament), so the Court would need to “find” the duty as existing in common law.
The court considered evidence in the case from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, and globally renowned ANU climate scientist Will Steffen.
“The Conversation” suggests that it’s important to recognise Ley hasn’t yet made a decision about approving the coal mine extension. The young Australians were seeking an injunction to prevent her from approving it, but they didn’t succeed, on “technical grounds.”
However, her responsibility to young people has now been formally recognised by the Federal Court. The judge ordered the minister and Whitehaven Coal to make further submissions outlining how the newly determined duty of care impacted the minister’s assessment of the mine.
While the court didn’t say the minister has a duty to stop all coal projects of any size, as it was only considering the Whitehaven extension project, this is still hugely significant.
A duty of care means a responsibility to not take actions that could harm others. Failing a duty of care is the first step in a claim of negligence.
Australia has been repeatedly criticised on the global stage for its stance on new coal and climate change more generally.
Now, we may find the decisions made by its relevant ministers could amount to negligent conduct
This landmark case shows that young people, determined to fight for action on climate, will continue to find new and creative ways to hold powerful people to account.
It also puts the W.A. Minister for Environment, Climate Action and Commerce on notice—-to exercise a duty of care to children and future generations. Recent approvals for Woodside’s Burrup Hub Scarborough gas project do not meet the requirements for sufficient abatement of greenhouse gas emissions, according to activist groups like the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.
“Woodside’s claims that it is reducing carbon emissions, when in fact it is actually doubling its emissions at the Pluto LNG facility, is a feat of mental gymnastics that only Woodside could muster,” the group’s Dan Gocher said.
A major report by the International Energy Agency found all fossil fuel expansion should end for the planet to meet the goals agreed in Paris. The Australia Institute said when held up next to this the Pluto development was a “climate wrecking” project. Woodside and the Government have a duty of care to our kids and to future generations to come clean with their business.