Five brave young Australians’ UN human rights complaint

Meet the young Australians fighting for climate justice

Everyone has the right to a healthy environment and a safe climate. Our kids deserve a bright future with equal opportunity, a say in what will determine their future, and where the people and places they love thrive.

But right now, we are living in a climate crisis and young people, people with disabilities, and First Nations people are disproportionately affected.

That’s why, ahead of COP26, five brave young people in Australia from youth, First Nations and disability communities who are facing acute climate change risks, have lodged a trio of human rights complaints with the United Nations (UN) over the Australian government’s failure to act to meaningfully to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

The complaints are made jointly to the UN Special Rapporteurs for Human Rights and Environment, the rights of Indigenous people, and the rights of persons with disabilities. They make the case that the Morrison government’s globally-criticised 2030 emissions reduction target, fails to uphold the human rights of every young Australian, particularly those at acute risk from climate harms including young First Nations people and disabled people.

In the complaint, the group share their hopes for a safe future where they have equal opportunities, can enjoy good health, and can fully practise their Culture. They also outline their jarring personal experiences of extreme weather events, acute mental health risks, and their fears for their future and the future of the people and Country they love.

“I am a Wiradjuri teen and my connection to Country is incredibly important to me. I am standing up to protect my Country, culture and community and ensure every First Nations person has access to a safe future.”   

Ethan Lyons, 15, Sydney (he/him) 

“Climate science predicts climate change will be irreversible by 2030. By then, I will only be 26. My life will have barely begun. We’re told time and time again that we will save the planet, and those who should be responsible for climate action – our world leaders – pass the responsibility down to us, the generation who can do nothing about it.”

Leila Mangos, 18, Central Coast NSW (she/her) 

“I am a Kulkalaig woman from Kulkagal Nation, Zenadth Kes – the Torres Strait. My family’s island, Masig, is already seeing the impact of climate change. My great-grandparents moved because of rising sea levels. The thought of my family being displaced in their own country is heartbreaking.”

Shylicia McKiernan, 24, Melbourne (she/her) 

I have mental health issues and disabilities, which puts me at a higher risk of climate harms. My anxiety is triggered by climate change and can manifest in physical pain. I am very annoyed the government doesn’t have any solid actions to stop climate change.” 

Chris Black, 14, Sydney (he/him) 

“I have sensory issues and chronic pain which are exacerbated during extreme temperatures which heavily impacts my accessibility to education, travel and to leave the house which takes a toll on my mental health. I am angry that our government is unwilling to address the disproportionate harms on disabled people, especially when there are global crises.

– Adrien Edward, 15, Melbourne (they/them) 

 These inspiring young people are fighting for climate justice. They want to see the Australian government held to account for infringing on their human rights. And, they want a seat at the table – to have a fair and meaningful say in the decisions that affect their future, and the future of young people, First Nations people and people with disabilities across the country.

Together, we must solve the climate crisis before we lock in the greatest intergenerational injustice of our time. Then we can all enjoy a future where people and nature thrive, now and for generations to come.

“We are speaking up for every child across the country. We have the right to a bright future where we are safe, healthy and can practise our Culture on Country. The Australian government is meant to represent us all but right now it is ignoring the clear realities of what climate change means for us.

It’s time the Australian government faces the reality that their inaction on climate change is a violation of human rights that puts young people like us at serious risk of mental and physical harm.

We want climate justice for us and for young people, First Nations people and people with disabilities across the Country. That means a much stronger emissions target by 2030 and a seat at the table so we can have a say in the decisions that affect our future.”

Meet their lawyer

“Our clients deserve a government that is dedicated to securing a safe future, where people and nature can thrive in a stable climate, for generations to come. 

Instead, the Morrison government’s failure to set emissions reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement and make no greater commitment for 2030 targets, will continue to put them at risk. It’s a human rights issue, very close to home, that can’t be ignored and must be addressed immediately.”   

– Brittni Dienhoff, Climate Lawyer, Environmental Justice Australia

“On 9 October 2021, and in a landmark move, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council recognised the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a human right. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelete, introduced the session stating that, “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment is the foundation of human life” and called on States to take “ambitious action”.

– UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet

The inextricable link between human rights, climate change and State’s obligations is now well acknowledged. In 2019, five UN bodies released a joint statement confirming that climate change poses “significant risks to the enjoyment of human rights” with “the risk of harm… particularly high [for] women, children, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and persons living in rural areas”. The bodies asserted that accordingly States “must adopt and implement policies aimed at reducing emissions which reflect the highest possible ambition [and] foster climate resilience.”

Under the Paris Agreement too, Australia is explicitly required to adopt a greenhouse gas reduction target, known as a “Nationally Determined Contribution” (NDC), which reflects “its highest possible ambition.” Despite this, and the explicit recognition that climate change is a human rights issue, Australia remains tied to harmful inaction and a woefully inadequate NDC.

“The rights of groups who are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis – young people, people with disabilities, and First Nations people – are protected under numerous UN Conventions including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – all of which Australia has ratified. Australia is not only likely in breach of all of these instruments, but it appears that the government is ignoring its fundamental obligations to protect the rights of young people.”

– Brittni Dienhoff, Climate Lawyer, EJA

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has stated, “Children are disproportionately impacted by climate change due to [childrens’] unique metabolism, physiology and developmental needs. The negative impacts of climate change, including the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters, changing precipitation patterns, food and water shortages, and the increased transmission of communicable diseases, threaten the enjoyment by children of their rights to health, life, food, water and sanitation, education, housing, culture, and development, among others. Climate change heightens existing social and economic inequalities, intensifies poverty and reverses progress towards improvement in children’s well-being.”

“It is difficult to characterise in a single phrase the devastation that the plausible evidence in this proceeding forecasts for the Children [Plaintiffs]. … the human experience – quality of life, opportunities to partake in nature’s treasures, the capacity to grow and prosper – all will be greatly diminished … It will be inflicted by the inaction of this generation of adults, in what might fairly be described as the greatest inter-generational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next.”

– His Honour Justice Bromberg in Sharma and Ors vs Minister for the Environment

The Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that health is “a state of complete physical mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, and that States must “put children’s health concerns at the centre of their climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies”

A recent study published in Science found that a 6-year-old in 2020 will experience twice as many bushfires and tropical cyclones, three times more river floods, four times more crop failures, five times more droughts, and 36 times more heatwaves compared to a person born in 1960.

A recent study published in Science found that a 6-year-old in 2020 will experience twice as many bushfires and tropical cyclones, three times more river floods, four times more crop failures, five times more droughts, and 36 times more heatwaves compared to a person born in 1960.

Young people in Australia will continue to grapple with mental health issues as they mourn ecological losses and human harms, and fear for the future. Given their age, children have little power to limit climate harms, making them more vulnerable to climate anxiety and potentially exacerbating pre-existing mental health problems.

Research and evidence regarding the impact of the Black Summer bushfires on Indigenous peoples in NSW and Victoria provided to the Australian government’s Royal Commission Inquiry into Natural Disasters (authors of which include Euahlayi man and academic Bhiamie Williamson) highlights that:

at the time of the fires one quarter of all Indigenous peoples in NSW and Victoria were directly affected by the bushfires; and
1 in 10 children living in bushfire affected areas were Indigenous with over 36% of the total Indigenous population in fire-affected areas being less than 15 years old.

In a recent article in Independent Australia, Eleanor Beidatsch, a disability and environmental rights activist, stated that when a wild winter storm hit her home on the south coast of Western Australia, her life was placed in jeopardy. Eleanor relies on respirators for life support and when the storm hit and caused power outages, she was left with a finite supply of power to the respirators.

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