For the students who launched legal action against the Environment minister over her duty to protect young people from an impending climate change catastrophe, the fight is far from over. By Anjali Sharma.
Sharma v Environment Minister
It was my last economics class before the exam, but I’d be lying if I said I was paying even an ounce of attention. Sorry, Mr Shave.
Instead, I was trying to get a video live stream of the Federal Court working on my laptop.
While the screen buffered, all I could think about was how my fellow litigants, also high-school students, were sitting in a courtroom in Sydney, holding hands and barely breathing.
And I was 1000 kilometres away, wishing I was with them, barely breathing either, as Justice Mordecai Bromberg began to hand down his judgement.
In the months leading up to this moment, our lawyers had argued passionately that Australia’s Environment minister, Sussan Ley, owed us eight litigants – and all young people around the world – a duty of care, not to cause us harm by her imminent approval of the Vickery Coal Mine Extension Project in New South Wales. They argued the project’s emissions would worsen climate change, harming the world we will be left with.
Watching the Federal Court proceedings that day, it was a bitter feeling to realise that not a single classmate really knew what was going on, nor cared. It’s not for a lack of trying. I’ve always tried to spread awareness about climate change at school, inviting people to protests and sharing resources and petitions. I’ve found that while people are concerned, and aware of the issue, it’s not enough to compel them to do something about it. It’s easier to put climate change out of sight and out of mind. But even having this option reveals massive privilege, because the ability to be able to opt out of conversations about world issues means that you, yourself, are in a position of safety and security while millions are not.
For me, climate change has never been a subject to be debated, it is a threat we are living with now. I’m fighting every day for climate justice for my home country of India, an equatorial nation that will be – that already has been – one of the worst hit by the climate crisis. Already in parts of India, temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius by 9am on spring mornings. Flash floods, fires, extreme heatwaves and cyclones ravage the country regularly.
My parents moved us to Australia when I was just 10 months old. So, I’ve watched this all from a distance – listened as family members describe the reality of living in a country being transformed by climate change.
School taught me about the importance of recycling and planting trees, but it was watching YouTube videos about climate change from channels such as the National Geographic, Al Jazeera and AsapScience at the age of 14 that helped me connect the dots and realise the seriousness of the situation my generation faces. It was information that inspired me to get involved with organising school strikes.
The thing that struck me most from these videos was the concept of climate justice. The people who have done the least to cause the climate crisis, largely those in developing countries, will be worst affected by it, and will be the least equipped to deal with it. This includes my family in India, along with all people of colour across the world and First Nations communities.
If you are, at this moment, completely safe from the effects of the climate crisis, it’s all too easy to push it from your mind. It’s true for almost everyone around me. But there are people already in danger, who are already losing their homes and their lives.
During this legal process, I’ve found a lot of people who disagree with me completely. Some people have had genuine concerns, such as the panellist on The Project who told me class actions were “undemocratic”. From my point of view, if people care about an issue as much as we care about climate change, isn’t having the ability to make their voice heard in the legal system the most democratic thing possible?
Online, I’ve been labelled “attention seeking” by some people, while others have claimed I don’t know how much water has gone into making my “jean pants”, or that I need to throw away my phone, which they argue contributes to climate change as much as a gas-fired power station.
But the criticism I’ve faced doesn’t change anything. I’m just doing what I can.
On May 21 this year, I emceed the School Strike 4 Climate in Melbourne. At one point, I yelled to the crowd of 20,000 people, “Who’s with me?” I’ll never forget the cheer they responded with; it brought tears to my eyes.
It reminded me that I’m fighting for my future – both with my school strike team and with the other litigants in this class action. It sounds so pretentious, fighting for the future as though we’re some kind of superhero team, but sometimes it feels like we actually are. It feels like we have the power to do something.
Our superhero name is already decided: it’s the “Litty Gantts”. We are a random bunch of kids – “entitled loser” kids, according to our critics online – who have grown incredibly close through this nine-month legal process. Apparently that’s what happens when you sue the Environment minister together.
I never imagined, though, that I would have the opportunity to be the first named litigant. Getting that call from my lawyers was a fever dream.
Sharma v Environment Minister…
I told my mum first, then called my best friend. He laughed at me while I tried not to cry about how it could’ve been any of us eight young applicants, but the name going on the case file in the Federal Court was mine – the one ethnic last name in the group.
People of colour have always been incredibly under-represented in the climate movement. So, to be repeating Sharma v Environment Minister in my head, knowing that I was about to break down so many structural barriers, it is impossible to describe what that feels like if you aren’t part of a minority. I will always be incredibly grateful to my legal team for that.
A few days later, I got a message from a young mum, a woman of colour, thanking me for inspiring her children. She told me that her daughter pointed at the TV and said, “Mummy, I’m gonna be like her!”
I hope she will. The world needs more leaders of colour. We’re not just the hope for the future, we’re leading the present.
Seven out of 10 Australians want the government to take more action on climate change, according to the Lowy Institute’s 2021 survey. Each year around the world, 150,000 people die because of climate change.
We’ve long since passed the time for far-off targets and empty promises, for burying the problem. For lining the pockets of multinational gas companies such as Origin and Santos.
This year’s federal budget outlined an additional $58.6 million of public money to coal, oil and gas projects. There were zero dollars of direct funding for renewable energy. Then, just two weeks ago, the government announced it would spend $600 million of public money on a gas-fired power station in the Hunter Valley.
These are consecutive slaps in the face to all young and vulnerable people around the world.
I didn’t have to look those numbers up, by the way. They live rent free in my head, wedged in somewhere alongside The Great Gatsby quotes for English and foreign policy evidence for global politics. Because it terrifies me to think about the world I will be left with.
When announcing his judgement, the Federal Court’s Justice Bromberg said:
“It is difficult to characterise in a single phrase the devastation that the plausible evidence presented in this proceeding forecasts for the Children … Australia will be lost and the World as we know it gone as well. The physical environment will be harsher, far more extreme, and devastatingly brutal … Lives will be cut short … It will largely be inflicted by the inaction of this generation of adults, in what might fairly be described as the greatest intergenerational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next.”
Although Justice Bromberg did not grant an injunction to prevent the Environment minister approving the expansion, he did find the minister has a duty to take reasonable care to not make decisions that will adversely affect our futures. And he agreed with all of our unopposed evidence that carbon emissions produced by mining and by burning fossil fuels will worsen climate change, and the coalmine project itself will increase the risk of catastrophic impacts.
This is a world-first outcome that we hope will set a precedent to protect younger people from harms caused by new coalmines in Australia. You don’t often get a chance to make history.
Conservative media has had a field day with the fact we weren’t granted an injunction. Headlines declared we’d failed bitterly. But what they didn’t report is that the court is now welcoming further submissions from us on what the duty means for the minister and the mine. The fight is not over.
The feeling walking out of my economics class that day in the wake of Justice Bromberg’s judgement was incredible. Almost as incredible as Greta Thunberg’s tweet about our case, which United States congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez liked.
But there’s still so much more to do.
Unfortunately, in my case, that also includes revision for my economics exam.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 5, 2021 as "Call to action".
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