Following Dutch Footsteps, Activists to Sue Aussie Government on Climate

Landmark ruling raised ‘energy and appetite of the community to stand up and use the courts when government fouls them,’ says environmental lawyer

A sign at the People's Climate March in Melbourne, Australia, in September 2014. (Photo: Takver/flickr/cc)

A sign at the People’s Climate March in Melbourne, Australia, in September 2014. (Photo: Takver/flickr/cc)

Signaling the global implications of last week’s historic Dutch court ruling‚Äîthe first in the world to use human rights as a legal basis to protect citizens against greenhouse gas emissions and global warming‚Äîenvironmentalists in Australia are reportedly preparing to launch a similar legal challenge against Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government for its notorious inaction on climate change. 

In response to a lawsuit filed by the Amsterdam-based environmental nonprofit Urgenda Foundation along with over 800 Dutch citizens, the Hague District Court ruled last Wednesday that the government has a legal duty to reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020. It marked the first time a court has determined the appropriate emissions-reduction target for a state, based on the duty of care owed to its people.

News outlets predicted at the time that the decision could set a precedent, triggering similar cases all around the world. As Emma Howard wrote in the Guardian last week:

The verdict will likely not only inspire lawyers, but the environmental movement, which is tired after 23 years of international negotiations. The multiple successes of the fossil fuel divestment campaign have provided a new, hopeful narrative of international relevance in recent years—and this court case could do the same.

Like the UK’s mass climate change lobby last week, this David and Goliath case shows that the climate change movement is not just made up of lentil-eating, sandal-wearing idealist liberals. All of the plantiffs who successfully sued their government today are Dutch citizens, crowdsourced by Urgenda, the environmental foundation behind the case.

Now, according to Australia’s SBS News, environmental lawyers in Melbourne are preparing to launch similar action in that country.

The Urgenda victory “really raises the energy and appetite of the community to stand up and use the courts when governments and policy fouls them,” Environmental Justice Australia lawyer Ariane Wilkinson told SBS reporter Abby Dinham in an interview on Tuesday.

Wilkinson said the legal strategy was still in its “early stages” and noted that “this question about harm to Australians themselves and a failure of policy to deliver on the emissions reductions required to stop dangerous climate change has not been before an Australian court.”

In a blog post at The Conversation, Katherine Lake, research associate at the Centre for Resources, Energy and Environmental Law at University of Melbourne, added that “in Australia, environmental groups generally have to show a ‘special interest’ in the subject of the action, beyond that of the general public. This has been a stumbling block for public interest environmental litigation in Australia.”

Still, Lake wrote, “[i]t is possible that if the government’s intransigence on climate change action continues, the courts in Australia will be increasingly called on to decide questions such as those raised in the Netherlands case.”

She continued:

While the decision of the Dutch court was made in a domestic setting, it has broad international implications, particularly for developed countries such as Australia. Besides the growing diplomatic pressure on Australia to step up its action on climate change, there is, for the first time, judicial evidence to compel developed countries to take serious action.

Measured against the Dutch court’s verdict on a fair and reasonable target for a rich nation, Australia’s current 5% target looks inadequate. The spotlight will increasingly be on Australia to justify this target in light of the decision.

Abbott is facing calls for increased climate accountability from many fronts. On Monday, a coalition of environmental, public health, labor, business, and socially responsible investment groups known as the Australian Climate Roundtable came together to declare: “Australia should play its fair part in these efforts while maintaining and increasing its prosperity.”

In the statement (pdf), the coalition said that supporting the global community’s goal of limiting climate change to less than 2¬∞C above pre-industrial levels “will require deep global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, with most countries including Australia eventually reducing net emissions to zero or below.”

The statement went on: “Our broad coalition has come together because climate change and climate policy both impact our missions and members. We believe Australia should play its fair part in global efforts to avoid 2¬∞C and the serious economic, social and environmental impacts that unconstrained climate change would have on Australia. Avoiding unconstrained climate change will provide important benefits and opportunities to Australia.”

However, the coalition warned, “[d]elayed, unpredictable and piecemeal action will increase the costs and challenges of achieving the goals and maximizing the opportunities… The foundations of climate policy need broad and durable support, and we all have a role in building it.”

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