Australian teens bring class action climate lawsuit to stop coal mine expansion

“I believe that the government has a duty to young people to protect our futures from the impacts of climate change, including stopping the impact of the Vickery Extension Project.”

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This week, a group of eight Australian teens has brought a groundbreaking new climate change lawsuit against Australia’s Federal Minister for the Environment in an effort to stop a proposed coal mine expansion in the state of New South Wales, roughly 267 miles north of Sydney.

Filing a class action lawsuit in federal court, these students are representing not just themselves but young people under age 18 across Australia and around the world, as the generation that is particularly imperiled from the climate crisis and the continued fossil fuel expansion driving climate breakdown. 

“The climate crisis will disproportionately impact young people as many of us will live into the second half of this century, far beyond many projections of climate catastrophe,” said Laura Kirwan, a 16-year-old plaintiff from Sydney who is active in Australia’s School Strike 4 Climate.

The lawsuit is the latest in several climate cases brought by young Australians in recent months.

In July a 23-year-old Melbourne law student named Katta O’Donnell filed a class action lawsuit against the Australian government for allegedly failing to disclose to government bondholders the climate-related risks of their investments.

In May, a group of young Queenslanders under the name Youth Verdict filed a lawsuit against the developer Waratah Coal, challenging the Galilee Coal Project. That project in central Queensland, with its multiple underground and open-pit mines, is expected to produce 40 million tons of coal per year and would generate nearly 3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over three decades. Youth Verdict is suing on the grounds that the Galilee Coal Project will exacerbate climate change and violate these young people’s human rights under the Queensland Human Rights Act. Passed in 2019, this new law recognizes fundamental rights such as rights to life, security of the person, equality before the law, and the protection of families and children.  

This latest youth-led lawsuit, Sharma et al. v. Minister for the Environment, is challenging a coal mine expansion in New South Wales known as the Vickery Extension. Last month, state authorities approved the project, which was proposed by Whitehaven Coal. The mine expansion would allow Whitehaven to extract another 10 million tons of coal annually, an increase of 250 percent over its original mine. Furthermore, the expansion is expected to release an extra 100 million tons of climate pollution, bringing the mine’s total to roughly 370 million tons or the equivalent of about 70 percent of Australia’s total carbon emissions from 2019.

Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley is the federal official currently weighing whether to approve the Vickery Extension project, which is broadly opposed by local communities. The youth lawsuit, brought by students between age 13 and 17, seeks a court order directing Ley to squash the project. The lawsuit argues that climate change is causing grave harm and that new coal projects exacerbate that harm, particularly for young people as climate impacts worsen over time.

“Burning coal is the single largest contributor to this crisis and Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter,” Equity Generation Lawyers explains on the case’s website. “To make it worse, we know that young people and children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.” Equity Generation Lawyers is an Australian law firm specializing in climate change law and is representing the youth in this class action suit. It is the same firm representing Katta O’Donnell in her case against the federal government.

Equity Generation Lawyers argues in the Sharma case that the environment minister has an obligation, or “duty of care” under Australian common law, to prevent foreseeable harm to vulnerable people. If successful, the case could have a real impact in terms of “preventing all new coal mines from being approved in this country,” according to the law firm.

“Such an approach to a climate change case has not been tested before in Australia, and would chart new territory if successful,” Laura Schuijers, a research fellow in environmental law at the University of Melbourne, wrote in The Conversation. “Although a legal victory would appear difficult on these grounds, the implications of this case are already significant. They show young people, determined to fight for action on climate, will continue to find new ways to hold powerful people to account.”

Australia has already seen a court decision striking down a coal project largely due to environmental and climate concerns. In February 2019 the Land and Environment Court in New South Wales rejected a mining company’s appeal of a government decision not to permit a new open-pit coal mine. Chief Judge Brian Preston wrote that the coal project “would be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He explained that this is not the time to be building new coal mines because coal “will increase global total concentrations of [greenhouse gases] at a time when what is now urgently needed, in order to meet generally agreed climate targets, is a rapid and deep decrease in [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

On September 9, just one day after the Australian teens filed their class action against the Vickery coal project, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said in a press conference on the release of a new international climate science report: “The coal business is going up in smoke.”

“Climate action is the only way to ensure a livable planet for this and future generations,” he added.

But according to young climate activists like the Australian teens suing the federal environment minister, governments are not taking climate action seriously, which they say forces them to turn to the courts.

“I have grown up listening to conversations about the climate crisis but I’ve not seen governments do anything significant in the form of climate action. As a young person, I cannot vote to have my voice heard by politicians,” said Laura Kirwan, the 16-year-old plaintiff from Sydney. “I believe that the government has a duty to young people to protect our futures from the impacts of climate change, including stopping the impact of the Vickery Extension Project.”

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