February 19, 2020

Torres Strait Islanders win key ask after climate complaint

The Australian government has promised $25 million in climate adaptation spending for the Torres Strait – a key ask of a group of eight islanders who brought a world-first human rights complaint over the Canberra’s climate inaction. The money will be used to construct seawalls, repair and maintain jetties and re-establish ferry services. ClientEarth lawyers are supporting the group bring their complaint, alleging that climate inaction violated their human rights after communities suffered damage from flooding and erosion to their ancestral homes.

Background to the case

The Torres Strait Islands lie off the northern tip of Queensland and are home to a unique indigenous culture. But climate change is threatening everything, with rising seas inundating homes, lands and cultural sites. The surrounding marine environment is also at risk from rising sea temperatures that bleach coral and acidify the ocean.

The Australian government currently has no policies in place to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target and its continued lack of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is putting these islands at significant risk.

In the first climate change case against the Australian government over human rights, the islanders took their complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, calling for greater climate action from their government as well as more funds for coastal defences.

The government announces $25 million for the Torres Strait

Canberra responded by announcing a $25 million infrastructure fund in partnership between the federal and Queensland governments. Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, visited the region shortly before the announcement.

ClientEarth lawyer Sophie Marjanac spent a year living in the Torres Strait and helped advise the islanders to help bring their claim. She said:

“This is good news for the people of the Torres Strait. With rising seas threatening their traditional way of life on the islands, it was a key ask of those bringing the human rights case for Canberra to provide the emergency sea wall funding requested by the Torres Strait Island Regional Council.

“These emergency funds are sorely needed to build and repair critical infrastructure on the islands, such as seawalls to alleviate damage from rising seas and storm surges. However this is only the beginning of what will be needed to maintain the communities in the long term.

“Our clients also believe that the government has legal duties to address the cause of sea level rise. Australia’s emissions and position on fossil fuels causes and contributes to global climate change. For all of its people, the Australian federal government needs to adopt a sensible emissions reduction policy.”

What next?

This is an important win for the islanders but more must be done, and urgently.

The islanders are calling for Australia to increase its emission reduction target from the current target of 26-28% to at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, going net zero by 2050 and phasing out coal.