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In a landmark judgment, the Federal Court of Australia has ruled that Environment Minister Sussan Ley has a legal duty of care to safeguard Australian children and teenagers, as well as the environment, from the impacts of climate change. 

The class-action case was spearheaded by eight teenagers and an 86-year-old nun appointed under court rules to be the children's litigation guardian.

Initially, the case was launched to stop Ley from supporting the development of the Vickery Coalmine in New South Wales, with the students saying the mine expansion would increase emissions and climate change and cause harm to human health. 

While Justice Mordecai Bromberg did not grant the request, he said that, now, under national environment law, the minister must consider the "avoidance of personal injury" when deciding whether or not to approve the mine and all future projects. 

He also said it was “reasonably foreseeable” that younger generations will face ill health due to climate change.

"The physical environment will be harsher, far more extreme and devastatingly brutal when angry. As for the human experience — quality of life, opportunities to partake in nature’s treasures, the capacity to grow and prosper — all will be greatly diminished,” Bromberg wrote. “Lives will be cut short. Trauma will be far more common and good health harder to hold and maintain.”

The children’s lawyer, David Barnden, called the decision “historic.” 

"The court has found that the minister owes a duty of care to younger children, to vulnerable people, and that duty says that the minister must not act in a way that causes harm — future harm — from climate change to younger people,” he told the media outside the court, according to the Guardian. “It is the first time in the world that such a duty of care has been recognised, especially in a common-law country.”

In his judgment, Bromberg revealed that 1 million young Australians will likely endure heat stress so severe they will be forced to seek urgent medical care in hospital.

Thousands, meanwhile, are expected to die from extreme heat and bushfire smoke.

Should temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Australia will endure longer droughts and fire seasons, more frequent and intense heatwaves, further bleaching of coral reefs and continued warming and acidification of oceans. 

Bromberg said the court would now be accepting submissions from other parties about his judgment.

Ava Princi, who met the other seven students through the School Strike 4 Climate movement, said further submissions would help determine exactly what the duty of care rule means for the potential expansion of the mine.

“It’s not over yet,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald.


Defend the Planet

Australian Court Rules the Government Has ‘Duty of Care’ to Protect Young People From Climate Change

By Madeleine Keck