Australia sued by islanders for lack of action on climate change

Group of Indigenous Australians file claim arguing some islands could become uninhabitable

Plaintiff Paul Kabai, who is among those suing the Australian government, looking over the seawall on Boigu Island in the Torres Strait. AFP
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Australia is being sued by a group of islanders who say they have not been protected against climate change by the government.

The Torres Strait Islanders living off the country’s north coast have filed a court claim arguing that some islands could become uninhabitable if global temperatures rise more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The case, brought on behalf of the remote islands of Boigu and Saibai in the Torres Strait, is believed to be the first such climate change class action launched by Indigenous Australians.

It was filed on the same day Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Torres Strait Islands face the threat of floods and saltwater ruining their soil as global warming leads to more storms and rising sea levels.

"There is high confidence that Torres Strait Island communities and livelihoods are vulnerable to major impacts of climate change from even small sea level rises,” the claim filed with the Federal Court said.

One of the two plaintiffs, Paul Kabai, said his people have lived on the islands for more than 65,000 years and may be forced to leave if they face more flood and storm damage.

"Becoming climate refugees means losing everything: our homes, our culture, our stories and our identity," he said.

An aerial view of Boigu Island in Australia's Torres Strait. AFP

The case is being modelled on one that environmental group the Urgenda Foundation led against the government of the Netherlands, saying it had a legal responsibility to protect Dutch citizens from climate change.

That case resulted in the Dutch High Court ordering the government to cut carbon emissions faster than planned.

The latest case is expected to be heard in the third quarter of 2022 with a decision likely to take up to 18 months.

The islanders filed a human rights complaint to the UN two years ago on similar grounds, which has yet to be resolved.

Updated: October 26, 2021, 12:17 PM