The right to a safe climate and the South Australians pushing for it
By Alycia Millar, UniSA Journalism and Law Student
Could a right to a safe climate help enforce government action? 16-year-old activist Anjali Beames believes it could. (Image: SBS)
Sixteen-year-old Anjali Beames does not skip school to slack off with her friends – she skips school to save the planet.
Since December 2020 Miss Beames has been a part of School Strike 4 Climate: a group of student activists who strike from attending school to rally for climate action.
“As a young person who wants to have a safe and stable future, what else am I going to care about? This is the key issue of my generation and that’s why it’s so important to me and so many other young people,” Miss Beames said.
Working with the organisation was a natural progression from Miss Beames’ lifetime of fighting for the environment, stemming from feeling connected to nature.
She was initially exposed to climate action through her parents but is now taking her own steps towards a safe future.
“Growing up I’d do beach and river clean ups but it was only [from] going to school in the city that I realised that protesting was a thing,” Miss Beames said.
With Labor’s recent win in the federal election and an unprecedented number of climate-focused Independents and Greens elected, Miss Beames said it is clear Australians are wanting change.
“I think that the best way to drive that change is through us as people holding the government accountable or voting in a new government that we know will act.
“I think it’s very difficult to change the minds of those in power who, for decades, haven’t changed their behaviour. So instead you chuck them out and you get new people in who are going to do the right thing,” Miss Beames said.
School Strike 4 Climate Australia draws from activist Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture initiative which began in 2018 where Thunberg protested every school day for three weeks in front of the Swedish parliament.
Miss Beames said the initiative is necessary to drive climate action from grassroots, student-led movement.
“It’s fantastic to have that decision making capacity as students, where we’re not being told what to do or how to do it.
“We learn life skills [and] we make our own connections. We have to interact with adults and step up into that role, but at the same time it does make it very difficult to get things done, especially in Adelaide where it’s a very small team,” Miss Beames said.
It was involvement with School Strike 4 Climate that led eight students to launch a world-first class action on behalf of all Australian children against the former Environment Minister Sussan Ley, which was overturned in March this year.
The students’ claim was initially successful after a single Federal Court judge found Minister Ley owed children a duty of care to consider their safety when assessing fossil fuel contracts.
However, in March this year the full Federal Court unanimously found the duty of care does not exist.
In a statement to the ABC, Minister Ley said the government was “committed to protecting our environment for current and future generations” but believed “common sense [had] prevailed” in the decision’s over turning.
This decision echoes similar cases emerging in Australia and internationally in recent years which focus on a legal approach to climate action rather than a push for government action.
Dr Sarah Moulds is a director of Rights Resource Network SA, a group of rights activists connecting people working in the community with decision-makers, and believes a human rights framework may help to pursue this legal approach.
“[The network has] been working towards a shared position which is a position in favour of the human rights framework for South Australia,” Dr Moulds said.
While there is a lot of support for a human rights framework for SA, it lacks political push.
“South Australian parliamentarians, the government and the community organisations feel proud about advancing human dignity and fairness, but we don’t have a law that says that,” Dr Moulds said.
Dr Moulds said while a human rights framework could make a difference in the class action for climate, it may not deliver the result the applicants want.
“If there’s a human rights act I can ask the reviewer to think about ‘did the original decision maker have regard to my rights … when making the decision’.
“It does not guarantee that I’ll get the decision I want, but it guarantees the decision maker will think about [rights],” Dr Moulds said.
This would help create a rights standard to hold decision makers to account and provide an avenue for review.
“You could design a human rights framework that says a failure to have regard to this right gives rise to an action … by having rights standards in review it changes the common law and it changes the way the parliament interacts with rights,” Dr Moulds said.
However, a human rights framework might be limited in the context of the class action for climate, as it would require a balancing of different interests and rights.
“Does it have flow-on impacts but would it stop every decision? No, and that’s a good thing too, because at the heart of human rights law and the heart of this dignity concept is this notion of coexistence of rights, so you couldn’t put right to environment as a ‘super right’,” Dr Moulds said.
Miss Beames said while the decision’s overturning was disappointing, it sends a message about the importance of climate action that is inspiring global change.
“Even though it was decided that the environment minister doesn’t have a duty of care, it set a moral precedent for this issue going forward.
“The courts still accepted, even without a duty of care, they acknowledged that the climate crisis is an issue that’s going to detrimentally effect young people and that acknowledgement alone from the legal system is a step forward,” Miss Beames said.
One of the reasons the earlier judgement was overturned was that it is not the court’s role to determine government policy, which Miss Beames found disappointing.
“The reason [they] took the environment minister to court was because the government isn’t doing anything.
“It raises an interesting debate around the role of the government and what to do when they aren’t, in my eyes, doing the right thing. Where do you go if the lawmakers aren’t going to make the laws to protect our generation?” Miss Beames said.
University of South Australia Law Reform Clinic student Mark Knight has been researching past attempts to create a human rights framework in SA and said climate change offers a starting point for a human rights discussion.
“Climate change is massive, visible and tangible. It affects us all. As opposed to, say rights for trans people,” Mr Knight said.
Mr Knight said most Australians would not think a human rights framework would be necessary as there have been few instances of rights deprivation that have affected the whole population of modern Australia.
“There’s this notion in Australia that we are a kind of ‘white hat’ country … but we are ranked 39th in the world for freedom of the press … we have refugees locked up, we have the vast majority of our First Nations population in jail.
“But we still think we’re the white guys, the nice old white guys that framed the constitution, how could they be wrong? I think that’s the single hardest thing for every single element of this to get over is that fact that we need to change,” Mr Knight said.
Dr Moulds said creating this change could alter the discussion around issues like climate change to depoliticise the issue.
“It would be a discussion about ‘how does this right coexist with this other person’s right instead of the type of discussions we have now which is what economic impact or what political impact [this will have],” Dr Moulds said.
Dr Moulds commented on the prospect of a potential federal human rights framework following the prominence of a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption as an issue in the federal election.
“People care about a human rights act and want to see it, but would they change their vote based on a government or MP that would decide to support that?
“The thing that gives me so much hope is that we are moving into an environment where people might do that, because that’s exactly what we’ve just seen on integrity at the federal election,” Dr Moulds said.
While Miss Beames agreed the federal election result brings hope for change, she said School Strike 4 Climate are not going to stop pushing for action.
“We are still going to hold them accountable and we are still going to have rallies and we are still going to hold them to their word and encourage them to pursue stricter emissions reduction and more investment in renewables.
“Hopefully things will get better [but] if they’re not doing that on their own, we are going to continue to campaign for it and push for that because we have the power to inspire that change, regardless of what the government intends to do,” Miss Beames said.