CANBERRA – A group of eight Australian teenage environmentalists lost their court bid Thursday to force the federal government to ban a coal mine expansion.
But their lawyer claimed victory in the Federal Court's ruling that the government has a duty to prevent future climate harm.
The plaintiffs, aged 13 to 17, argued that Environment Minister Sussan Ley had a duty to protect younger people against climate change. Ley is considering whether to approve an expansion of Vickery mine in New South Wales state, and the teenagers sought an injunction preventing the expansion.
Justice Mordy Bromberg rejected their bid, while noting the expansion of the Whitehaven Coal-owned mine would lead to an additional 33 million metric tons (36 million U.S. tons) of coal being extracted over 25 years and 100 million metric tons (110 million U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
Bromberg ruled that Ley did owe the children a duty of care under the law of negligence, but said he was not satisfied that a reasonable understanding had been established that Ley would breach her duty of care to the children.
Bromberg found there was a real risk that the extension of the mine near the town of Gunnedah would cause a “tiny but measurable increase to global average surface temperatures.”
“Perhaps the most startling of the potential harms demonstrated by the evidence before the court is that 1 million of today’s Australian children are expected to suffer at least one heat stress episode serious enough to require acute care in a hospital,” Bromberg said.
“Many thousands will suffer premature death from heat stress or bushfire smoke. Substantial economic loss and property damage will be experienced. The Great Barrier Reef and most of Australia’s eastern eucalypt forests will no longer exist due to repeated, severe bushfires,” he added.
The children's lawyer, David Barnden, said he considered the judgment a victory.
“The court has found the minister owes a duty of care to younger children, vulnerable people, and that duty says the minister must not act in a way that causes future harm of climate change to younger people,” Barnden told reporters.
“This is an amazing decision ... an amazing recognition that people in power must not harm younger people by their decisions,” Barnden added.
Ley's office said she would consider the judgment before making any public statement.
The case echoes a ruling in Germany last month in which the top court said the government must set clear goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2030, arguing that existing legislation risks placing too much of a burden for curbing climate change on younger generations.
The verdict was a victory for climate activists from Germany and elsewhere who — with the support of environmental groups — had filed four complaints to the Constitutional Court arguing that their rights were at risk by the lack of sufficient targets beyond the next decade.
This month, German officials proposed that the country could bring forward the date for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” to 2045.
In Australia, the teenagers who filed the case were led by 17-year-old Anjali Sharma with the aid of a so-called litigation guardian, Catholic nun Sister Brigid Arthur, 86.
One of the children, 17-year-old Ava Princi, described the judgment as a relief and called on Ley to ensure the mine extension never occurs.
“This is the first time a court of law anywhere in the world has recognized that a government minister has a duty of care to protect young people from the catastrophic harms of climate change,” Princi told reporters.
“My future and the future of all young people depends on Australia stepping away from fossil fuel projects and joining the world in taking decisive action," she said.
“This case was about young people stepping up and demanding more from the adults whose actions are determining our future wellbeing,” she added.
The judge called for lawyers for the children and the minister to make further submissions by June 3 on what orders he should make in light of his reasons for judgment.
As the driest continent after Antarctica, Australia is particularly vulnerable to weather extremes associated with climate change.
Australia’s hottest and driest year in 2019 came to a catastrophic conclusion with wildfires fueled by drought that killed at least 33 people, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and razed 19 million hectares (47 million acres).
Australia is also one of the world’s largest exporters of coal and liquified natural gas and has been criticized for failing to set more ambition targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
On Wednesday, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon emissions by a net 45% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels in a landmark case brought by climate activism groups. The court ruled that the energy giant had a duty to reduce emissions and that its current reduction plans were insufficient.