Australian indigenous islanders file lawsuit against government, demand climate action

WION Web Team
Brisbane, AustraliaUpdated: Oct 26, 2021, 04:03 PM IST


Story highlights

The islanders say that rising sea levels pose an existential threat to their homelands and culture, thereby putting them at the frontline of the climate crisis

On Tuesday, indigenous residents of the low-lying Australian island of Torres Strait filed a landmark lawsuit against the Australian government.

The lawsuit is aimed at forcing the government to take steps to protect the islanders from climate change, by imposing deeper cuts on carbon emissions so as to combat the climate crisis.  

They say that rising sea levels pose an existential threat to their homelands and culture, thereby putting them at the frontline of the climate crisis.

Lawmakers representing traditional land owners of Boigu and Saibai, two of the hardest hit islands, want the Federal Court to order the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a level that would prevent Torres Strait Islanders from ending up as climate refugees.

In terms of climate change class actions, this is believed to be the first to be launched by Indigenous Australians.

Australian officials unveiled a 2050 net-zero goal on the same day the lawsuit was filed; the plan, however, is light-on-detail and criticised for relying heavily on undeveloped technologies and carbon offsets.

Watch | Climate holdout Australia sets 2050 net zero emissions target

The Torres Strait, also called Zenadth Kes, is a collection of 274 islands between Australia's mainland and Papua New Guinea. Fewer than 5,000 people live there.

In its lawsuit, the islanders claim that some islands are expected to become uninhabitable if global temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that we could pass that threshold by 2030.

United Nations reports project the world will warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100, based on current global commitments.

The plaintiff, Paul Kabai, who lives on the island of Saibai, said that salt-ruined soils and worsening flooding were putting the health of his people at risk, leaving them facing a dire future.

"If you take away our homelands, we don't know who we are. We have a cultural responsibility to make sure that doesn't happen."

He said becoming a climate refugee means losing everything: their homes, their culture, their stories, and identity.
In May, a federal judge ruled that expanding a coal mine near Sydney would cause climate-related harm to eight Australian teenagers. That judgement paved the way for this lawsuit.

People in Australia and around the world are increasingly turning to the courts in an effort to prod governments into taking action on climate change.

Earlier in 2019, a group of Torres Strait Islanders had filed a separate complaint with the United Nations, alleging that the authorities are failing to address climate change, which is a violation of their human rights.

The Australian government has asked for the complaint to be dismissed; however, the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva has not yet formally responded.