Categories
Adaptation Australia Human Rights Committee Imminent risk Indigenous peoples' rights Private and family life Right to culture Right to life Sea-level rise

Torres Straits Islanders v. Australia

Summary:
This petition against Australia was brought to the UN Human Rights Committee by a group of eight Torres Straits Islanders in 2019. In their petition, they argued that the Australian government had violated their rights, as inhabitants of low-lying islands, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) because of its inaction in addressing climate change.

Rights at stake:
The applicants in this case invoked a series of rights in the ICCPR. This includes Article 27 (the right to culture), Article 17 (the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home), and Article 6 (the right to life). They consider that the Australian government must ensure both mitigation and adaptation measures in order to adequately protect their rights.

Outcome:
The case is currently pending.

Categories
Adaptation Australia Domestic court Imminent risk Indigenous peoples' rights Sea-level rise Uncategorized Vulnerability

Australian Torres Straits Islanders case

Summary:
In the Australian Torres Straits Islanders case, modelled on the Dutch Urgenda case, a group of indigenous Torres Strait Islanders living on islands off Australia’s coast initiated domestic class action proceedings before the Federal court of Australia to claim that the Australian government has failed to protect them from climate change, leading to the progressive destruction of their ancestral islands.

Context:
In another, separate climate claim, a group of eight Torres Strait islanders took a Communication to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2019, alleging that Australia had violated the human rights of low-lying islanders because of its failure to take climate action.

Petitioners:
This case was brought by two First Nations leaders on behalf of the remote Torres Strait islands of Boigu and Saibai. They brought the case on their own behalf and “on behalf of all persons who at any time during the period from about 1985 and continuing, are of Torres Strait Islander descent and suffered loss and damage as a result of the conduct of the Respondent”.

Arguments made:
Based on scientific evidence, the plaintiffs argue that climate change is already threatening their native title rights and distinctive customary culture. They allege that, due to the progression of climate change and the increasing storms and rising sea levels that result from this, they face an increasing threat of floods and of rising salt concentrations in their soil. Some islands, they argue, could become uninhabitable if the global temperature rises to levels more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. One of the plaintiffs noted that that his people have lived on the islands in question for over 65,000 years.

The plaintiffs allege that the Australian government owes a duty of care to Torres Strait Islanders. It must, in other words, take reasonable measures to protect them, their environment, their culture and their traditional way of life from the harms caused by climate change. Because current climate action and targets are not consistent with the best available climate science, they argue, this duty of care has been breached. They invoke the Torres Strait Treaty, which requires the Australian government to protect and preserve the marine environment in the region. The plaintiffs seek both mitigation and adaptation measures and rely on the duty of care recognized in the Sharma case.

Full text of the petition:
The full text of the petition is available at climatecasechart.com.

Categories
Australia Children and young people Domestic court Emissions reductions Imminent risk

Sharma and Others v. Minister for the Environment

Summary:

In Sharma and Others v. Minister for the Environment, issued on 27 May 2021 by the Federal Court of Australia, a group of children and their litigation representative, Sister Marie Brigid Arthur, argued that the Australian Minister for the Environment owes them and other Australian children a duty of care in approving coal mining projects because of the risk of future climate change related harms, and sought an injunction against the project. Given the evidence of climate harms, the judge concluded that the Minister does have a duty of care towards children, but rejected the application for an injunction.

On 15 March 2022, the Government won its appeal against the judgment in this case. While the Full Federal Court upheld the primary judge’s factual findings, it unanimously (although based on several different strands of reasoning) overturned the ruling on the Ministry’s duty of care when exercising her statutory functions under the EPBC Act.

Date:

27 May 2021 (appeal judgment: 15 March 2022)

Merits:

The case concerned a decision by the Minister to approve the extraction of coal from a coal mine. The judge considered the available evidence about the degree of risk and the magnitude of the risk of harm alleged by the applicants, as well as the foreseeability and likelihood of that harm arising and being caused or contributed to by coal-related CO2 emissions. The judge concluded that the Minister does have a duty of care towards children.

The judgment recognizes that “the risk of harm to the Children from climatic hazards brought about by increased global average surface temperatures, is on a continuum in which both the degree of risk and the magnitude of the potential harm will increase exponentially if the Earth moves beyond a global average surface temperature of 2°C, towards 3°C and then to 4°C above the pre-industrial level.”

At issue was the question of whether the emissions from the mine would be within the remaining carbon budget to be respected in order to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius. On this, and putting the onus of compliance with this budget on the respondent Minister, the Judge held that he did not have sufficient evidence to conclude that this would not be the case. He noted that:

“The Minister called no evidence. The Minister essentially contended that the Court should infer that the 100 Mt of CO2 would likely be emitted in accordance with the Paris Agreement. There is no sufficient basis for that inference. The Minister relied upon little else than speculation, in circumstances where the evidence showed that at least one of the potential consumers of the coal is not a signatory to the Paris Agreement.”

Remedies:

The Judge rejected the applicant’s request for an injunction, considering that the duty of care had not yet been breached, and that it was appropriate to await the outcome of the Minister’s decision-making process.

In a follow-up judgment, issued on 8 July 2021, the Judge ordered the Minister to pay the claimants’ costs, and held that the Minister has a duty to take reasonable care, in the exercise of her powers, to avoid causing personal injury or death to Australian children arising from carbon dioxide emissions.

Appeal:

The appeal by the Ministry of Environment challenged the primary judge’s finding of a duty of care as well as specific factual findings regarding global warming and the approved project’s contribution to that.

The Full Court upheld in full the factual basis of the case as established by the primary judge. With regards to the legal grounds, it concluded however that no duty of care for human safety should be imposed upon the Minister when exercising her power under the EPBC Act.

While each of the three judges emphasized different legal aspects, their reasoning essentially centered around the following arguments: Determining the point of breach of such a duty of care would prompt core policy questions unsuited to being answered by the judiciary. A common law duty of care would be inconsistent with the Minister’s statutory powers under the EPBC Act. There is no sufficient link between the Minister’s exercise of power and the potential harm inflicted on the children. Finally, the lack of control over the risk of harm, the absence of foreseeability of a causal injury, and indeterminacy were cited to argue against the imposition of the duty.  

Measures taken as a result of the judgment:

On 15 September 2021, the Minister granted approval for the proposed mine expansion.

Status of case:

Overturned on appeal (special leave application possible until 12 April 2022)

Suggested case citation:

Federal Court of Australia, Sharma by her litigation representative Sister Marie Brigid Arthur v. Minister for the Environment [2021] FCA 560, 27 May 2021, Bromberg J.

Federal Court of Australia, Minister for the Environment v Sharma [2022] FCAFC 35, 15 March 2022, Allsop CJ, Beach and Wheelahan JJ

Links:

For the full judgment of 27 May 2021, see here.

For the follow-up judgment of 8 July 2021, see here.

For the judgment on appeal (15 March 2022), see here.

Categories
2021 Deciding Body Domestic court European Convention on Human Rights Imminent risk Keywords Paris Agreement Right to assembly and association Right to freedom of expression Rights at stake State concerned Switzerland Year

Credit Suisse Climate Activists Trial (Lausanne)

Summary:
On 22 November 2018, a group of 20 to 30 climate activists from the collective “BreakFree Suisse”, among them the 12 complainants, occupied the entry halls of the Swiss bank Credit Suisse in Lausanne to demonstrate against the bank’s investment in fossil fuels. The protest aimed to draw attention to this issue by condemning the participation of the Swiss tennis player Roger Federer in the advertising campaign of this bank. To do so, the activists were dressed in sports clothes and staged a tennis match. While some activists complied with the police request to leave the premises, others had to be dragged out by the police.

The activists argued that they had been in a “justifiable state of emergency” (rechtfertigender Notstand) due to climate change and that their protest was therefore lawful.

On 13 January 2020, the Tribunal de police de l’arrondissement de Lausanne (“Police Court of the district of Lausanne”) ruled in favor of the protesters. The judge found that climate change posed an imminent threat and that the protest was therefore a necessary and proportionate means to achieve the activists’ intended goal.

On 22 September 2020, this decision was overruled by the Tribunal Cantonal du Vaud (“Vaud Cantonal Tribunal”). The Court argued that the activists could have protested the bank by using other means, such as political or legal instruments. It further found that climate change is an imminent threat and that measures must be taken to address it. However, the Tribunal Cantonal du Vaud doubted that the protest could have led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, it also noted that the Swiss government is aware of the issue and has already taken necessary measures, such as ratifying the Paris Agreement. Finally, the Court held that it is not yet too late to take the necessary protective measures to combat climate change.

On 26 May 2021, the Swiss Bundesgericht (“Swiss Federal Supreme Court”) mainly upheld the Tribunal Cantonal du Vaud’s decision. It argued further that climate change may be considered an imminent threat and that the activists did not intend to protect a specific legal interest, but rather collective interests, namely the environment, health, or the well-being of the population, and thus, the protest was not lawful.

In a similar case in Geneva, a climate activist from the same collective was on trial after putting red handprints all over the front of the Swiss bank Credit Suisse.

Rights invoked:
The complainants invoked their rights to freedom of expression (Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)) and assembly and association (Article 11 ECHR).

The Swiss Bundesgericht argued that the complainants are not entitled to invoke Articles 10 and 11 ECHR in this context because they had no right to enter private property to take their actions. The freedom of assembly does not include the right to gather on private property without the owner’s consent. Consequently, the claimants could not rely on Articles 10 and 11 ECHR.

Date of decision:
26 May 2021

Suggested case citation:
Swiss Bundesgericht, 12 climate protesters v. ministère public central du canton de Vaud, 6B_1295/2020, Judgment of 26 May 2021.


Links:
For the judgment of the Swiss Bundesgericht (in French), see here.

For the judgment of the Tribunal Cantonal du Vaud (in French), see here.

For the judgment of the Tribunal de police de l’arrondissement de Lausanne (in French), see here.  

Categories
2018 Biodiversity Domestic court Emissions reductions Imminent risk Margin of appreciation Nepal Paris Agreement Right to a healthy environment Right to health Right to life Right to subsistence/food

Padam Bahadur Shrestha v. Office of Prime Minister and Others

Facts of the case:

The petitioner, Padam Bahadur Shrestha had applied to the concerned authorities in Nepal to enact a separate law on climate change in August 2018, but did not receive a response. He thus filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Nepal alleging that the situation in Nepal that is marked by absence of a special climate change legislation, inadequacies in existing environmental legislation in addressing climate change, and poor implementation of the State’s climate change policy suffices to establish a violation of the right to life, right to live in a healthy and clean environment, right to health care and right to food found in Articles 16, 30, 35, and 36 of the Nepali Constitution.

Date of decision:

25 December 2018

Court’s decision:

The Supreme Court of Nepal found that an amendment to the existing laws and introduction of a new consolidated law that addresses climate change was necessary and issued detailed directions on what features the new law must contain. It based this order on the reasons that such would facilitate Nepal’s compliance with its obligations under international law, including the Paris Agreement and that climate mitigation and adaptation directly concern fundamental rights including the right to life, right to have nutritious food and the right to a clean environment. It further held that although the Environmental Protection Act of 1997 addressed environmental protection along the dimension of climate change, its provisions were inadequate regarding climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Status of the case:

Decided.

Suggested case citation:

The Supreme Court of Nepal, Padam Bahadur Shreshta v Office of the Prime Minister and Others, NKP, Part 61, Vol. 3, judgment of 25 December 2018.

Case documents:

For the judgment of the Supreme Court of Nepal (in Nepali), click here.

For an unofficial English translation of the judgment (authored by Hardik Subedi), click here.