7am is a daily news podcast brought to you by the publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
How to listen? Submit Newsletter signup Submit Website Submit

7am Podcast

Last year, the federal court found the environment minister has a duty of care to young Australians when making decisions regarding climate change. This month, that decision was overturned.

The teen who sued for climate action

Read Transcript

Last year, the federal court found the environment minister has a duty of care to young Australians when making decisions regarding climate change. This month, that decision was overturned. But for the teenagers involved in the case, it is not the end. Today, Anjali Sharma on her fight for action on climate change.

 

Guest: Climate Activist, Anjali Sharma.

 
Read Transcript

[Theme music starts]

 

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

Last year, the Federal Court found the Environment Minister has a duty of care to young Australians when making decisions regarding climate change. This month, that decision was overturned. But for the teenagers involved in the case, it is not the end.

 

Today, Anjali Sharma on her fight for action on climate change.

 

It’s Monday, March 28.

 

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

So maybe could you start by just introducing yourself?

ANJALI:

So I'm Anjali Sharma, I'm 17 years old and I'm the lead litigant in the ‘Sharma vs Environment Minister’ class action against the Federal Environment Minister of Australia. 

RUBY:

And so do you mind taking me back to whenever it was when you first started to think about climate change and become aware of just how big the problem of it is?

ANJALI:

It's strange because I've always really been around isolated incidents that link very closely with climate change. My family originates from India, which is a country that is equatorial. It's been ravaged in recent years by floods, by natural disasters that have displaced many, many people - in fact, India is one of the countries with the highest rates of climate refugees in the world. But, you know, growing up, you never really make that link with this is what's happening to my family, and this is also climate change.

In school, at that age -  around 12 to 13 -  you learn about the importance of recycling, you learn about, you know, all the little things that you can do to be sustainable, but you never really learn about the large problem. So I remember doing, you know, deep dives into YouTube

Archival Tape – Reporter

“What exactly is climate change and why should we care?”

Archival Tape – David Attenborough:

“The only conditions modern humans have ever known are changing and changing fast” 

Archival Tape – Reporter

“The climate of planet earth is changing, the natural order has been turned upside down, millions of people are at risk” 

ANJALI:

…and learning about the fact that, you know, it was so essential to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, and that the ice caps are melting, and all these stats. And it really showed me just how large the problem was and how these isolated incidents weren't actually isolated, but kind of a larger part of something that needed to be tackled head on.

RUBY:

Hmm. And can you tell me how you got from, I guess, understanding that there was a problem to actually realising that there was something that you could do about it, some action that you could take?

ANJALI:

When I started taking it upon myself to learn about climate action, I started a small little Instagram account, which actually got pretty big, it got 12,000 followers, but I would make tiny little infographics just breaking down the climate crisis and all those little steps that talked about. And through like targeted Instagram ads, I found out about School Strike For Climate. 

Archival Tape –  Reporter 1

“Young people have turned out in droves, skipping school to strike for their future and call for action on climate change-…”

Archival Tape – Reporter 2

“Many skip the classroom to clam into the city, joining millions of people all around the world in the biggest protest yet over the state of our planet.” 

ANJALI:

They were holding an open organising meeting, so I went along. I started organising the strikes. The first one that I organised was in September 2020, which was coincidentally one of the biggest climate strikes that Melbourne has had. I think the crowd reached about 200,000 on September 20th, 2020. 

Archival Tape – Young Protester 1

“I guess it's our future and we're just trying to do our part.”

Archival Tape – Young Protester 2

“It's empowering, honestly to know that like we all come together, use our voices…”

Archival Tape – Young Protester 3

“People don’t understand that if we ruin the planet now, we won’t have a planet for the future, so we’re here to try to prevent that from happening”

ANJALI:

And it was through that that I networked with people who got me involved in this amazing class action that I am so grateful to be leading.

RUBY:

And so could you describe the class action that you became a part of,  what the intention of it was?

ANJALI:

So this class action is me, and 8 other litigants under the age of 18 - by representation of our litigation guardian, who is a nun, Sister Brigit Arthur, bringing a class action to the federal court, saying that the Federal Environment, as part of her portfolio, has the responsibility to protect all young children under the age of 18 from the impacts of climate change.

Archival Tape – News Reporter

“Izzy Raj-Seppings is one of eight teenagers who have teamed up in a legal challenge against Minister Susan Ley…”

Archival Tape – Izzy Raj-Seppings

“We're trying to get the federal environment minister to prevent the Vicary coal mine from going ahead…”

ANJALI:

And what this case was built around or supervised by the federal government to expand the Vickery coal mine, the already existing coal mine in regional New South Wales. And this extension project would have potentially increased the emissions of Australia and burnt an extra 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. 

Archival Tape – Izzy Raj-Seppings

“We’re filing for an injunction to stop the Federal Environment Minister from being able to approve this Vickery Coal Mine. So it’s just about this one project but it could create precedent that can stop future coal projects…”

ANJALI:

I really feel like it's not a lot to ask. I feel like it's not something that should be legislated in the first place, but really given that, yeah, she's a politician who has to care about children. But nonetheless, that was our goal to write it into Australian climate law, that it was a legal requirement that she must consider the impacts of climate change on children before undertaking any actions as part of their portfolio. 

RUBY:

Hmm. And so last year, that class action made it to the federal court and it was successful. The court ultimately decided that it is in the duty of the government to protect and and take care of children from a future personal injury due to climate change. Can you describe the moment of that win? 

ANJALI:

The day of the judgement actually, it really snuck up on me. I remember logging into it in economics class because it was held in Sydney and I'm down here in Melbourne. And it felt so surreal when the judge was saying that he had accepted the duty of care. 

Archival Tape – Judge

“The court is satisfied that a duty of care should be recognised. Accordingly, the court has determined that the minister has a duty of care to take reasonable care not to cause the children personal injury when exercising her power under section 130…”

ANJALI:

I didn't believe it. I have to message the legal team who were all up in Sydney, asking them to decode the legal jargon, and you know, is it actually true we actually won?

Archival Tape – Anjali

“The law now recognises that the environment minister is in a special position of power to prevent foreseeable harms to young people, I feel elated for this decision…”

ANJALI:

I was filled with so, so much optimism when it was confirmed: yes, we’d actually won!

Archival Tape – Reporter 1

“It is a historic judgement, the court has found that the Minister owes a duty of care to younger children, to vulnerable people…”

ANJALI:

It was just such, such a surreal and happy couple of days that it gave me so much hope and so much motivation to just keep pushing for more direct action. But the next week, I think it was, when we found out that the environment minister had published a statement saying that she had intent to appeal, and that she believed she had grounds to appeal. It was…it was really disheartening. It felt like a slap in the face. 

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

[ ADVERTISEMENT ]

RUBY:

Anjali, early last week, the federal court's decision was overturned on appeal. You were there in court. Is that right when it happened? Can you describe it to me? 

ANJALI:

I was in court, and it was such an angry and devastating day. 

Archival Tape – Reporter 1

“The federal court ruling was unanimous. Three judges on the full bench agreed that while the evidence of climate change was undisputed, as well as the dangers to the world and humanity, the environment minister should not be held personally accountable to protecting children against its impact.” 

ANJALI:

The moment when we heard the judge say he had decided not to impose this duty of care, you almost heard it, you noticed all the hearts in that room just broke together…

Archival Tape – Reporter 1

“Tears and anger. That was the response of young people outside the federal court today…”

ANJALI:

We'd worked so, so hard and we'd gotten further than we had thought would happen. And there it was, kind of just overturned as if it had never existed in the first place.

Archival Tape – Reporter 2

“Chief Justice James Alsop argued the proposed duty of care meant the court was straying too far into questions of policy...”

ANJALI:

The day was incredibly draining. It was incredibly devastating having to go out to the media and say we will be back, but not really knowing if we'd have even the strength to go through that whole process again. But I can say that a week on, it's only hardened our resolve, I guess, to keep going until our vision of this duty of care is a reality. 

RUBY:

Mm. And I know you have touched on this a bit, but are you able to just, I guess, outline for me what your fears are about what this decision means for the climate crisis? 

ANJALI:

It feels like we were at a point where we were gathering so much momentum. Y’know, strikes had been getting hundreds of thousands of people into the street, and poll after poll was showing that the people want climate action and there was a string of climate two hundred independents who were pushing for exactly that. And you know, every…every major party was conceding at one point that some sort of climate action was needed - even Scott Morrison said himself that Australia was becoming more and more unliveable. It felt like we were finally getting to that point where the country couldn't keep dragging its feet any longer. And then this happened. And now it feels like all of that momentum is just ground to a halt. This just opens the floodgates. It gives the government grounds to approve more and more fossil fuel projects and coal fired power plants and gas pipelines, and it gives them an excuse, essentially, which is what I fear because I don't think they need another excuse, but…y’know, here we are. 

RUBY:

And so what are your options now as you see it? What are you planning on doing? 

ANJALI:

There's always more avenues. You know, the fight doesn't stop here, whether we'll be able to appeal or not. We're still unsure because we are still reviewing the judgement and seeing what grounds there are to potentially appeal. No matter how many times you get knocked back by a court, or no matter how many times the government tells us to go back to school, or how many people judge us and say that when self-entitled, say that we're misinformed, it's not going to deter us. We know that there's more to be done, whether we’ll be striking, whether we'll be back to the courts, the fight for climate action won't stop. 

RUBY:

And when people ask you why it is that you're engaged in this fight and where your resolve, I suppose, comes from to continue with it, what do you say to them?

ANJALI:

That's the biggest misunderstanding, I feel, about this whole thing, is that it's not an extracurricular activity. It's not something I’ve taken on because the stresses of Year 12 weren't enough. It's a fight that's always been about the people, and it's a fight that's always had the safety and the vulnerability of marginalised communities and those people who are on the front lines at its very heart. That's what drives me every day, seeing the images of people on their roofs waiting for the SES to rescue them. And my family in India has been affected by climate related disasters. But me personally, that's something that I've never had to go through, and I dread the day that I will have to. I want this vision of safety for the future to not just be a vision. I want it to be guaranteed and I want it to be a reality. And I see that is just as important as any other studies that I do, learning about calculus or the causes of the French Revolution. I see it as essential to guaranteeing my future and the future of my family, my friends and everyone who matters to me.

RUBY:

Mm. Anjali, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. 

ANJALI:

Thank you for having me.

RUBY:

You can read Anjali Sharma writing on her case at thesaturdaypaper.com.au

[ ADVERTISEMENT ]
 

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today…

In a speech in Poland, US president Joe Biden has condemned Russian president Valdimir Putin, saying he "cannot remain in power". This is the clearest America has been in backing regime change in Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine. Biden said Putin was a "butcher" and that The West must prepare for a "long fight ahead".

And Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended his decision not to meet with the new Chinese ambassador to Australia. Morrison maintains that to do so would have been a “demonstration of weakness”. The new ambassador instead met with foreign minister Marrise Payne and shadow foreign minister Penny Wong. Historically, Prime Ministers including Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have met with incoming Chinese ambassadors.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow. 

 

[Theme music ends]