Student Sues Australian Government Over the Financial Risks of Climate Change

It is the first time a climate change case has been brought against a sovereign nation, according to experts.
July 27, 2020, 3:55am
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Image by PETER PARKS / AFP

A 23-year-old student is suing the Australian government over climate change, claiming that they failed to disclose the material risks of the climate crisis to those investing in government bonds.

Katta O’Donnell, a fifth-year law student at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, is leading a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, in what experts say is the first instance of a climate change case being brought against a sovereign nation.

The lawsuit—filed last week—accuses the Australian government and treasury of breaching its duty by not disclosing the risks of global warming to the material value of investments. Rather than asking for damages, however, O’Donnell’s appeal demands that the government ramp up its climate change policies and stop the marketing of bonds until they provide the relevant disclosures.

“I want my government acting with honesty and telling the truth about climate risks,” O’Donnell told The New York Times. “Investment and the economies and the climate are all so closely linked, and that really needs to be highlighted.”

David Barnden, one of three lawyers representing O’Donnell, further noted that “the claim asks for disclosure of risks—it doesn’t tell the government what to do or how to act.”

Experts have noted that the Australian government has the power to do more than just disclose the risks, however: it can also control and mitigate them, to some extent, by legislating on climate change. Whether or not O’Donnell’s lawsuit will prompt them to do either is unclear.

“The government knows about the problem,” she said. “They know the solutions, and they know what they need to do but they’re not doing it.”

A recent report by the Grantham Institute of Research on Climate Change and the Environment found that, of the 1,587 cases of climate litigation brought between 1986 and June 2020, Australia recorded the highest number of cases outside the United States.

Over 80 per cent of these cases outside the US were brought against governments, typically by corporations or individuals, and 58 percent of non-US cases had outcomes favourable to climate change action.

The Australian government has not publicly responded to O’Donnell’s lawsuit.