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Australia’s Climate Inaction: Why Grassroots Activism is a Necessity

Shannon is a member of the World’s Youth Climate Justice team. She discusses the Australian government’s lacklustre response to climate change and the motivation that it gave her to enter into the world of climate activism.

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Australia is a lucky country, and we know it. Rich in natural resources and economic opportunity, Australia sits comfortably as a midrange power within the international order. However, Australia is notably lacking with regard to positive action on climate change. The United Kingdom and United States, Australia’s closest political allies, have announced transitions to net-zero emissions by 2050. China, Australia’s closest trading partner, has also announced a transition to net-zero emissions by 2060. As a supplier of coal, Australia has resisted such a transition, but even its export market is drying up as its biggest buyers, Japan and South Korea, have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions. Due to such developments, and finally cowing to this international pressure, Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, acknowledged in February 2021 that Australia also needs to achieve net-zero emissions, however the specifics of this have not yet been published.

Morrison and the Liberal Party have historically been averse to any meaningful changes relating to climate change. In 2017, Treasurer Morrison (as he then was) brought a lump of coal to Parliament, provided by coal lobbyists, pronouncing, “On this side of the house you will not find a fear of coal.” This makes a mockery of the urgent need to switch to renewable resources. That coal is a large part of the Australian economy, cannot be denied, but it is clear that this needs to change. Not only because of the plethora of data provided by preeminent climate scientists on the alarming rate our planet is warming but also, because of the increase of natural disasters in recent years, including the 2019-2020 bushfires that devastated Australia.

Morrison’s 2017 moronic stunt was pivotal for me, as at that time in my studies I was becoming interested in environmental law, particularly climate change law. I was not surprised that an Australian elected official would resort to such silliness. Australian politicians have a history of being averse to positive climate action policies, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott even stated in 2017 that “It's climate change policy that's doing harm; climate change itself is probably doing good; or at least, more good than harm.” Despite feeling unsurprised by this, I still felt overwhelmingly disdainful and powerless; this motivated me to engage with the World’s Youth for Climate Justice (WYCJ).

However, I am not alone in my disappointment, nor am I alone in my strong desire to combat my government’s lack of positive climate action.

The WYCJ is a collection of students around the world who are on a campaign to seek an Advisory Opinion in the International Court of Justice on the duties of states in light of the climate crisis. I became involved with the movement in 2018 when I attended a talk by Antonio Oposa Jr., an environmental activist from the Philippines. Oposa Jr. gave a dynamic talk on the climate crisis and asked if anyone wanted to help him take the issue to the International Court of Justice. My hand went up without hesitation. This was the start of an exciting adventure. Since that first meeting, I have continued my involvement with the campaign by going to New York to begin working with partners from around the world and through my work for the Global Center for Environmental Legal Studies at Pace University in New York (GCELS).

However, I am not alone in my disappointment, nor am I alone in my strong desire to combat my government’s lack of positive climate action. Young people in Australia are aware of how climate change is going to shape their future and are increasingly active in the political space and attempting to force change. School Strikes 4 Climate Australia held rallies in 2019 (pre COVID-19) with an estimated 300,000 young people marching to demand stronger climate action from their government. These protestors demanded that the Federal Government commit to no new coal, oil or gas projects, 100 % renewable energy generation and exports by 2030 and to fund just transition and job creation for all fossil-fuel workers and communities. The School Strike 4 Climate team have also been involved with creative legal challenges to Australia’s lack of climate action.

Currently afoot is Sharma v Minister for Environment in the Federal Court of Australia. These applicants (who are all part of the School Strike 4 Climate team) have asked the Court to grant an injunction to prevent the Federal Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley, from allowing a proposed coal mine extension project. They argue that the Minister would be breaching her duty to protect young people from the devastating impacts of climate change if she allowed the coal mine to be built. The case began its opening submissions on 2 March 2021 and, though it is yet to be determined, it demonstrates that young people know that for change to occur, activism as well as legal action are necessary ingredients.

Our governments may be inactive, but the world’s youth is just getting started.

Although I find it frustrating that transitioning from our coal economy is likely occurring because of external pressures, I also have hope. Being involved with the WYCJ and GCELS has given me that hope and has restored my feeling of power, as I work with people all over the world on campaigning to strengthen climate action around the world. Witnessing brave and necessary challenges by Australia’s youth to the government’s inaction reminds me that many are fighting for Australia to be part of the positive change needed as the climate crisis looms over all of our futures. Our governments may be inactive, but the world’s youth is just getting started.


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