In September 2019, in a bid to get members of the Australian Government to see the devastating effects that climate change is having first-hand, the claimants formally requested then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison to visit their low-lying islands.
A representative, Kabay Tamu, personally delivered the invitation to Australia’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN, Her Excellency Gillian Bird, in New York.
In their invitation, the claimants pointed to a study showing that not only does Australia have one of the world’s highest carbon footprints per capita, but when fossil fuel exports were taken into account, the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions amounted to approximately five percent of total global emissions – the equivalent of Russia’s total emissions. The study estimated that Australia’s emissions could then rise to 17% of the world’s total by 2030.
Although Scott Morrison and Minister for Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor refused the invitation to visit the Torres Strait islands, at the start of 2020 the claimants won a key ask, as the Federal Government promised $25 million in climate adaptation spending for the Torres Strait. The money was earmarked to construct seawalls, repair and maintain jetties and re-establish ferry services.
Although an important win for the claimants and people of Zenadh Kes, this was only the start of what needs to be done.
The claimants continued to call for Australia to increase its emission reduction target from the current target of 26-28% to at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, going net zero by 2050 and phasing out coal.
In August 2020, the Australian Government submitted an official reply to the complaint to the UN, and argued that the case should be dismissed.
Denying that climate change is currently impacting the human rights of Torres Strait Islander people, the Government claimed that the complaint concerned future risks, rather than impacts being felt in the present. Australia’s lawyers also stated that because their country is not the main or only contributor to global warming, the effects of climate change on its citizens is not its legal responsibility under human rights law.
Denying that climate change is currently impacting the human rights of Torres Strait Islander people, the Government claimed that the complaint concerned future risks, rather than impacts being felt in the present. Australia’s lawyers also stated that because the country is not the main or only contributor to global warming, the effects of climate change on its citizens is not its legal responsibility under human rights law.
It’s shameful that indigenous communities on Australia’s climate frontline are being told that the risk of climate change to their human rights is merely a ‘future hypothetical’ issue, when scientists are clear these impacts will happen in coming years. My clients are watching as their traditional lands, their homes, their sacred sites and burial grounds are being eroded by the steadily encroaching waves.
Sophie Marjanac, ClientEarth lawyer who has been supporting the claimants
In September 2020, the claimants submitted a response to the Government’s claims, expressing disappointment that Australia’s position failed to recognise the basic human rights obligations it has to its people. They said it also fails to recognise the environmental impacts climate change has already had on their Islands – impacts they witness and have deep knowledge of as Traditional Owners.
Later than year, legal experts appointed by the UN supported the complaint by submitting an ‘amicus curiae’ brief (an independent submission based on expert knowledge), saying that the complaint could set a global precedent in finding that human rights are violated by climate change impacts.
It took until August 2021 for the Australian Government to submit its official reply to the claimants’ most recent response, in which it doubled down on its position, saying it is already doing enough on climate change, and that the future climate impacts are too uncertain to require it to act. This was the last procedural step in the complaint.
Just under a year later, following a change in government, Australia’s new Climate Change Minister, Chris Bowen, did what his predecessors hadn’t, and met with the claimants during a visit to the Torres Strait Islands. Following his visit, he concluded that climate change poses a ‘real and substantial’ threat to Torres Strait Islanders.
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