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Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Source: Loren Elliott/Reuters.
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  • A group of Torres Strait Islanders file a court claim against the federal government on Tuesday, alleging it has failed to protect them from climate change
  • The case is modelled by an earlier one brought against the Dutch government, which resulted in the country cutting carbon emissions quicker than had been planned
  • Despite living in the region for more than 65,000 years, the Torres Strait communities could be forced to leave if they face more flood and storm damage
  • It comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would target net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but that the goal would not be legislated
  • Instead, the federal government intends to rely on companies and consumers to drive emission reductions

A group of Torres Strait Islanders living off Australia’s north coast filed a court claim against the federal government on Tuesday, alleging it has failed to protect them from climate change.

Filed on behalf of the remote islands of Boigu and Saibai, the case is said by its backers to be the first climate-focused class action brought by Australia’s First Nations people.

It’s modelled on an earlier case brought by environmental group Urgenda Foundation against the government of the Netherlands, which claimed there was a legal responsibility to protect Dutch citizens from the impacts of climate change. As a result, the Dutch High Court ordered the government to cut carbon emissions quicker than had been planned.

Those living in the Torres Strait currently face the threat of floods and soil-ruining levels of salt as global warming leads to more frequent and more intense storms, as well as rising sea levels.

“There is high confidence that Torres Strait Island communities and livelihoods are vulnerable to major impacts of climate change from even small sea level rises,” the claim said.

One of the two plaintiffs, Paul Kabai, said his people have lived on the islands for more than 65,000 years, but communities there could be forced to leave if they face more flood and storm damage.

“Becoming climate refugees means losing everything: our homes, our culture, our stories and our identity,” Mr Kabai said.

“We’ll have nothing. We’re not going to survive if the government is not going to help us.”

The case is supported by Urgenda and non-profit advocacy group Grata Fund and is being run by class action firm Phi Finney McDonald. Grata said it expects the case to be heard in the third quarter of 2022, with a final decision likely to take up to 18 months.

It comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would target net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but that the goal would not be legislated. Instead, the federal government intends to rely on companies and consumers to drive emission reductions.

The government has also set aside $20 billion for technology development, which Mr Morrison said would reduce the cost of technologies like clean hydrogen, thereby increasing their use.

“Australians want action on climate change. They’re taking action on climate change, but they also want to protect their jobs and their livelihoods. They also want to keep the costs of living down,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

“I also want to protect the Australian way of life, especially in rural and regional areas. The Australian way of life is unique.”

However, critics have said the plan is too weak and does not prepare Australia’s economy for a rapidly evolving world.

“Unless the government sets the wheels in motion to cut our emissions in half by 2030, it is making climate change worse and turning its back on the opportunities,” Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy.

“Australia cannot keep relying on coal and gas exports because these industries are on the way out and if those workers are not helped with the transition, they will be left high and dry.”

Billionaire green investor Mike Cannon-Brookes called the plan “ridiculously embarrassing,” while the BBC quoted Murdoch University fire ecology expert Joe Fontaine as saying the net zero scheme has “all the strength of a wet paper bag”.

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