23-Year-Old Student Suing Australian Government Over Climate Change
A student is suing the Australian government over the financial risks of climate change, claiming it failed to disclose such risks to those investing in government bonds.
In the lawsuit, filed by 23-year-old Katta O’Donnell, the government and the Treasury are accused of breaching its duty by failing to make this material impact known to investors. Her legal team of three reportedly includes two prominent lawyers, who took on the case free of charge.
Experts have said this marks the first time this sort of climate change case has been brought against a sovereign nation, with a younger generation becoming increasingly aware of the effects climate change will have for their future aspirations.
According to the lawsuit, the value of Katta’s investment could well be altered following any threats to factors such as Australia’s economic growth, currency value or relationship with other countries.
Katta isn’t asking for any damages in the lawsuit. What she wants is for the government to improve its climate change policies, reducing risks for those investing in government bonds.
Her legal team is seeking an injunction to stop the Australian government from marketing bonds until disclosures are added to make investors more aware of the risks involved.
Speaking with UNILAD, Katta, who is the lead litigant in this case, revealed she ‘can’t remember a time when climate change was not a concern’ for her.
Katta grew up in the Central Highlands of Victoria, on Wurundjeri Country, an area that was left decimated following the tragic ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009, a series of bushfires that left 173 people dead.
In the past year, she has had to watch further devastation unfold during the ‘Black Summer’ Australian bushfires, with fires destroying 11 million hectares of land across Australia’s south-east region, an area equivalent to approximately half of the UK.
Katta told UNILAD:
I have friends who lost homes and families. Climate change is making these fires more frequent and severe and that future terrifies me.
Katta first became interested in the financial risks of climate change and the effect on investors after hearing David Barnden, who is now her lawyer, give a guest lecture at her university.
While working as a principal lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia, Barnden has previously represented shareholders Guy and Kim Abrahams in Federal Court proceedings against Australia’s largest bank CBA for failing to disclose risks related to climate change.
Katta decided to take on the role of lead litigant in this case as she wanted to educate herself and others about such risks, and believes there needs to be more widespread understanding of the ‘connection between investment, economies and climate change’.
According to Katta:
Climate change is impacting us as individuals and as a society, and it will have huge impacts on the economy and therefore effect the value of government bonds.
The recent fires are estimated to cost our economy over $100 billion. Our iconic Great Barrier Reef is dying, which is horrible in itself, but is also going to cost the economy billions of dollars. Farmers too are struggling after years of drought. This is happening now and it is only going to get worse.
Katta’s bonds will mature in 2050. However, by then she believes we will be living in ‘a very different world’, with increasingly frequent severe weather events having ‘a substantial impact on our economy and the value of bonds’.
According to a 2017 report from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), there is a significant link between climate change and various extreme weather events. 70% of 17 analyses of 2017 extreme weather events identified human-caused climate change to be the determining factor.
A 2018 report from Climate Council said Australia has seen a long term trend in worsening extreme weather, with serious effects for the country’s economy. For example, the 2018 drought in eastern Australia had a significant impact on the growth rate of Australia’s GDP.
To minimise these risks we will also need to transition into a lower carbon economy and if we don’t the transition risks such as stranded assets will cost us even more.
Katta stated that she doesn’t ‘feel protected’ by the Australian government, noting that Australia is one of the worst carbon emitters on the planet.
According to Carbon Brief, in 2015 Australia had 15th-largest greenhouse gas emissions on Earth, with citizens’ per-capita contribution being approximately three times that of the global average.
Going forward, Katta is now urging her government to manage risks by implementing systems and policies which would encourage a speedy transition to a low carbon economy.
Katta told UNILAD:
The case I’m bringing says the government is being dishonest in not telling us about the risks of climate change. The government’s actions seem to be increasing those risks through poor climate policy and the creation of an economy that is reliant on fossil fuels.
Australia is not prepared or taking genuine steps to transition to a lower carbon economy which is set to cost us with an abrupt and disorderly transition.
Some days I feel hopeful and others I do not. The constant disappointment I feel from government denial and inaction leads to despair at times. But I am hopeful because we cannot continue as we are and I look forward to the inevitable change.
We are realising that we cannot rely on destruction and exploitation. There is a global mobilisation occurring as we recognise that we can do better than this.
Through embracing new policies and ways of life we can minimise the risks, but we need to start facing the issue. The case I am bringing says the government needs to begin telling the truth. The first step of solving the problem is admitting that we have one.
Although this is the first time this sort of case has been brought against a sovereign nation, climate change litigation has indeed grown in prominence over the past three decades, and Katta is far from the only citizen taking a stand.
A new report from The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, The Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy (CCCEP) and The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law found Australia had the highest recorded number of climate litigation cases – aside from the US – between 1986 and 2020.
More than 80% of cases made outside the US were brought against governments, and were usually put forward by companies or individuals. Out of the non-US cases, 58% had favourable outcomes for climate change action, 33% had unfavourable outcomes, and 9% had ‘no discernible likely impact on climate policy’.
The Australian government has yet to give a public response to Katta’s lawsuit.
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CreditsGrantham Institute of Research on Climate Change and the Environment and 3 others
Grantham Institute of Research on Climate Change and the Environment