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Environment, Legal

CLIMATE SCIENCE EXPERTS STEP FORWARD AS LANDMARK CASE COMES TO MELBOURNE

Pitch Projects on behalf of Grata Fund 6 mins read

Following extraordinary On Country hearings in Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait) in June, further hearings for the landmark Australian Climate Case resumed on 8 November at the Australian Federal Court in Naarm (Melbourne) running until 27 November, with a focus on hearing from climate science experts.

This crucial next phase in the landmark case will see the Court hear from leading climate science experts on the impacts of climate change and sea level rise experienced in the Torres Strait. The court will also address Australia’s contribution to global carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions. Guda Maluyligal plaintiffs Uncle Pabai Pabai and Uncle Paul Kabai from the Torres Strait islands of Boigu and Saibai will make the journey to Melbourne to hear more about the science behind the climate harms experienced by their communities. 

BACKGROUND 

Faced with rising sea levels and distressing inaction on climate change, in October 2021 Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul filed the Australian Climate Case against the Australian Government for failing to prevent climate change. The homes of people in the Torres Strait could disappear beneath the rising seas, making them Australia’s first climate change refugees. For Guda Maluyligal communities and Zenadth Kes people, the impacts of climate change won’t only force them from their island homes, but sever their connection to thousands of  years of culture and deep spiritual connection passed down generation by generation, connection to land, sea, winds and sky and community. 

Uncle Paul Kabai says: 

"We are here in Court in Melbourne because we have a responsibility to protect our homelands, our communities and our culture from climate change for the future generations to come.”

We want the Government to face the truth about what will happen if they don’t listen to us and to the science. The experts will show them that they have to act much more quickly to save our islands from going underwater.

"Every day we witness the changes on our islands, to our livelihoods. We live on the frontlines of climate change, just like our brothers and sisters in the Pacific.

Right now, our Pacific brothers and sisters are in the Cook Islands also fighting to save their island homes. The Australian Government is telling them they are listening but how can they say this when they don’t take action that will stop our islands from going underwater.

Our message to the Australian Government is that we can’t wait any more years for climate action. If all they do is continue to talk and not listen to the scientists, our communities will disappear and we will lose everything.

Uncle Pabai Pabai says: 

We have already shown the Court our homelands in the Torres Strait and now they will hear strong evidence from expert scientists that will show that we are telling the truth about how climate change is affecting our islands.

Our islands are already being damaged by rising seas. On Boigu, the land is being eroded, our soil is being ruined by salt and the storms are becoming worse. If the Government continues to fail us, we will be forced to leave our homelands.

From the land, to the sky, to the seas - we are the people of the culture. If we are forced to leave our homelands, we will lose everything. Our identity, our culture - everything.

I’m happy to be here to deliver a message from my community to the Australian Prime Minister and everyone listening. I say to them, help us. I say to them, the time for politics must stop, you must take action urgently to protect us from climate change. If you don’t, we'll lose everything.

From 8 November, the Federal Court in Melbourne will hear from expert witnesses addressing the climate harms being experienced by Torres Strait communities on the frontline of Australia’s impending climate disaster. Expert witnesses include:

  • Professor David Karoly (world leader in atmospheric climate science)
  • Professor Linda Selvey (health expert)
  • Terry Hughes (marine biology expert) 
  • John Church (sea level rise expert)
  • Professor Malte Meinshausen (evidence about Australia’s contribution to global carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions)
  • Stuart Bettington (evidence on current and future impacts of climate change in the Torres Strait and adaptation options in the Torres Strait). 

Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul are seeking orders from the court that requires the Federal Government to take steps to prevent this harm to their communities, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the best available science. The Australian Government currently has a 2050 ‘net zero’ emissions target, which experts say will not be enough to prevent disaster in the Torres Strait. In fact, leading climate scientists on the Climate Targets Panel calculate that Australia’s greenhouse emissions need to be reduced by 74% by 2030 (from 2005 levels) and to net zero by 2035 to keep global heating to below 1.5C and avert the destruction of Torres Strait Islander communities. 

LEGAL COUNSEL/INTERNATIONAL PRECEDENT

Uncle Pabai, Uncle Paul and their communities are represented by Phi Finney McDonald. The Australian Climate Case is supported by Grata Fund and the Urgenda Foundation, and is backed by a strong international precedent. In 2015, the Urgenda Foundation and 886 people took the Dutch government to court for not doing enough to prevent climate change and won. The courts ordered the Dutch government to take immediate steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions and thanks to this groundbreaking legal action, the Netherlands now has some of the strongest climate policies in the world. This case triggered a groundswell of litigation internationally, with more than 80 similar cases filed around the world resulting in real-world emissions reductions in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere; meaning that the pressure is on the Australian government to act now. 

Grata Fund’s Executive Director, Isabelle Reinecke says:

"Today marks the start of expert witness hearings in the Federal Court that lift the conversation about Australia’s climate action out of the murky depths of politics and spin, and up into the realm of facts based on the best available climate science.

The tide is turning, and as more courts are asked to hear these cases we are seeing the beginnings of a wave of legal decisions that are forcing governments to face the facts on climate change. The Courts are very well positioned to get to the truth about Australia’s climate action - for one, they’re designed to focus on facts not political spin and two - the science on climate change is so well established that there’s nowhere for the Government to hide.

Principal Lawyer, Phi Finney McDonald’s Brett Spiegel says:

"The stakes couldn't be higher for Paul, Pabai and all Torres Strait Islanders who are fighting to protect their land, culture and identity - for their very existence. 

"At this crucial juncture in the case the Court will hear the best available science from an eminent panel of independent scientific experts. They will provide evidence about greenhouse gas emissions reductions required to prevent Torres Strait Islanders from becoming climate refugees.

"Even in the short period of time between the Court’s on-country hearing in the Torres Strait and the start of the hearing in Melbourne, scientific evidence has emerged showing that the climate risks are even greater and that the time to act to save Pabai and Paul’s homeland has diminished.

COMMUNITY SUPPORT 

Each year, millions of Amnesty International supporters around the world take part in Write for Rights, to use their collective voices to call for the protection of human rights. This year they are proud to be working in partnership with Grata Fund and to have the global Amnesty International community actively supporting Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul in this year’s Write for Rights as they challenge Australia’s government to protect the human rights of Torres Strait Islanders from catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Amnesty International campaigner Rose Kulak says: 

Climate change is a human rights crisis of unprecedented proportions,  affecting health, food, water, housing, livelihoods and life itself. Amnesty International calls on the public to join the Write for Rights campaign to support Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul as they fight to protect their ancestral lands and the Torres Strait Islander peoples from this fast approaching human rights catastrophe."

A NATION-SHAPING MOMENT 

Torres Strait Islander Peoples have a proud history of fighting for their rights through the courts. Eddie Mabo, from Murray (Mer) Island, famously debunked the classification of Australia as terra nullius, a pivotal step in land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul are proud to follow in his footsteps.

The next hearings will take place in Cairns in April and a decision is anticipated later in 2024. 


Key Facts:

Following extraordinary On Country hearings in Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait) in June, further hearings for the landmark Australian Climate Case resumed on 8 November at the Australian Federal Court in Naarm (Melbourne) running until 27 November, with a focus on hearing from climate science experts.


Contact details:

MEDIA ENQUIRIES

Available for interview:

  • Uncle Pabai and Uncle Paul and other members of their communities who have travelled to Melbourne
  • Isabelle Reinecke from Grata Fund and members of the legal team
  • Climate science experts
  • Former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong

For more information or to request interviews, please contact Terri King at Pitch Projects on terri@pitchprojects.com or 0488 036 740.

Hearings can be live-streamed via the Federal Court YouTube channel

For more information on the Australian Climate Case, visit the website: australianclimatecase.org.au

View the case timeline and the Federal Court’s simplified summary of the case

Download images, video footage and audio grabs here

More about Amnesty International’s Write for Rights support here.

See media release for additional background information.

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