Australia Failing to Meet its Climate and Human Rights Obligations

[ by Dr Kristen Lyons ]

THE 2019 federal election was supposed to be Australia’s ‘climate election’. Many polls indicated climate change would be a crucial issue at the ballot box.

Regardless of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s ousting from Warringah – arguably low hanging fruit given his sustained inaction on climate – the election result has left Australia, still, with yawning climate policy gaps. As a result, the country continues to languish in the face of global responsibilities to decarbonise.

Australia remains off-track in meeting its commitments to the Paris Agreement. As a signatory, Australia has committed to curtailing the global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, whilst aiming to limit this to 1.5 degrees.

Despite this, and how some Coalition Party politicians spin the truth, national greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise over the last four years.

The world is increasingly coming to understand that failure to take action on climate change poses profound threats to human rights. In a landmark report recently presented to the United Nations Council, climate change has been explicitly linked to many human rights concerns. These include forced migration and displacement – increasing the number of climate refugees – as well as denied rights to water, food, and housing, alongside threats to democracy itself.

In his report, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, explained these impacts were driving a ‘climate apartheid’. Those most vulnerable in a changing climate are also the least responsible for greenhouse emissions.

First Nations in Australia are amongst the most defenceless against the brunt of a changing climate. Already, entire villages are having to move from their homes due to a rise in sea levels and other flow-on effects from climate change – Fiji is one such country.

Remarkable climate activist, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, has lucidly describedthe disproportionate responsibility of the rich for global greenhouse gas emissions. It stands that the richest 10 per cent of the world’s population emits more than the poorest 50 per cent.

As a result of this global inequality, the growing number of climate refugees – estimated to reach 140 million peoplefrom Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America by 2050 – are also amongst the world’s lowest emitters.

Under the Paris Agreement – the world’s first climate agreement explicitly acknowledging the importance of human rights – Australia is compelled to consider its human rights obligations as part of climate change policies and planning.

Failure to do so, including failure to commit a maximum of resources to prevent foreseeable climate change-derived human rights harms, may represent a breach in our legal obligations.

A recent case exposes Australia’s poor performance in the face of these responsibilities.

Led by a group of eight Torres Strait Islanders – with representation from the Torres Strait Sea and Land Council, Gur A Baradharaw Kod, along with a legal team from ClientEarth and 350.org – a climate justice case has been lodged with the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHCR) against the Australian federal government.

This is the first time the Australian government has been taken to the UN for its failure to take action on climate change, and the first time people living on a low-lying island have taken action against any government.

The Torres Strait Islanders lodging this appeal argue that the Australian government has failed to take adequate action on climate change. In so doing, they argue, the government is in breach of multiple articles of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

These violations include the right to culture, the right to be free from arbitrary interference with privacy, family and home, and the right to life.

The Torres Strait, along with small island nations around the world, face impending climate change threats. This includes immediate threats of inundation of homes, food growing areas, and culturally significant sites – in combination, it is expected that this will exacerbate the number of climate refugees from these regions.

Just as settler colonial violence dispossessed First Nations peoples from their ancestral homelands, climate change presents a real threat of further forced removal of peoples from their land and seas, alongside the destruction of places from which deep cultural and spiritual meaning is derived.

Around the world, First Nations and other communities are calling on the UN to hold national governments to account on their human rights obligations. This includes taking effective action to reduce emissions, though the Human Rights Council admits that clearer guidelines are yet to be defined regarding what these commitments might actually look like.

There is important work to be done in this space, and human rights advocates can play a vital role in undertaking this task.

Will this Torres Strait Islands case hold the Australian Government to account for failings in regard to its responsibilities to protect fundamental human rights in a changing climate? This future is yet to be written.

Regardless of the outcome, we can expect litigation to grow in this emerging climate change and human rights space, as communities demand governments – and corporations – are held accountable for their climate inaction.


Dr Kristen Lyons is a Professor and researcher at the University of Queensland’s School of Social Science and also a Senior Research Fellow with the Oakland Institute. She works on issues related to development, the environment, Indigenous rights, and energy futures.


Originally published on Policy Forum.