The Torres Strait Islanders peoples, whose home islands sit just north of the Australian landmass, are sea-faring peoples with strong ties to the ocean and the land with a large emphasis on hunting, dancing, storytelling, and other cultural practices. For centuries, they have acted as stewards over the islands and the surrounding waters and have protected and preserved the local ecosystems. However, ensuring that current and future generations can continue to live sustainable lifestyles on their home islands has recently meant confronting the Australian national government for its complicity in climate change and thus the destruction of their home islands.
In 2019, eight Torres Strait Islander persons (known as the Torres Strait Eight) appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Council UNHRC to demand that Australia take stronger action against climate change in the name of human rights. The UNHRC has yet to formally respond, but Australia’s government called for the appeal to be dismissed. Then, after years of continued inaction, the Torres Strait Islander peoples then filed a formal lawsuit against the Australian government in October 2021.
This is not the first time Indigenous communities and groups have filed climate change lawsuits against national governments, which have proven to be relatively groundbreaking and strongly contested. The Torres Strait Islander peoples’ current lawsuit against Australia is part of a new wave of lawsuits against governments that point out how the failure to protect citizens against the devastating impacts of climate change is a human rights violation.
The Torres Strait Islander Peoples and The Reality of Climate Change
The Torres Strait Islander peoples can trace their presence on the islands back 70,000 years. There are over 200 islands within the Torres Strait with 17 inhabited islands and around 4,000 people. The islands were annexed by the British in 1879 and made part of Australia in 1901, which gave them status within the Australian nation as an independent authority but still placed them under the Australian government’s dominion. This sets the precedent of being able to sue the larger government at fault for not protecting the welfare of its citizens. That is why the Torres Strait Eight and local leaders started their campaign to protect the rights of the Torres Island Peoples.
Given their deep roots on the islands, it is only natural that the Torres Strait Islander peoples want to fight to protect them. If climate change is not combated, sea levels will continue rising around the islands, meaning less habitable land and accessible drinking water in freshwater wells. Given the high costs of shipping freshwater and the desalination of saltwater, protecting the existing freshwater wells is the best response to this issue. In addition, sea walls built by the Australian government to protect from flooding tides were not the fix that was hoped for: they were swept away in 2018. Floods have also destroyed homes and, what’s more, the evacuation (and potential destruction) of the islands will result in the Torres Strait Islander peoples being disconnected from their homelands and will make cultural preservation even more difficult.
This harsh reality is unfortunately felt by many other Indigenous and Aboriginal communities, as they are often the most vulnerable to climate change-related natural disasters like tropical storms and are most impacted by rising sea levels and warming oceans. In addition, because many Indigenous and Aboriginal cultural practices are tied to the environment, they are more susceptible to cultural erosion. As Indigenous and Aboriginal issues are most often not given priority on government agendas, it means that those issues are not addressed until damage has already been done. While many governments in the Global North claim to support decreasing fossil fuel emissions, many of their plans and efforts will not fulfill the goals set in international agreements that are meant to be reached by 2030.
Not only are the targets to halt climate change not taken seriously, but there is little to no support for any affected populations. Those who are currently affected by the climate crisis are not prioritized in plans for combatting the crisis. Since they are often left to fend for themselves with little government support, they must both proactively address climate issues and confront the national governments that have been the main polluters since the onset of the crisis.
The Ongoing Legal Battle
The Torres Strait Islander peoples are using legal methods to fight the unwillingness of the Global North to implement serious plans against climate change. Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples around the world protect over 80% of global biodiversity, yet they are the most impacted by climate change brought on by corporations and governments in the Global North. Thus, Indigenous communities, such as the Torres Strait Islander people, often have no choice but to be at the forefront of environmentalist movements and go up against corporate and state giants who are the biggest CO2 polluters as it is a matter of physical and cultural survival.
The Torres Strait Islander peoples have had to do just that: challenge the Australian state despite the staggering power imbalance. The lawsuit filed by leaders from the Torres Strait Islands against the Australian Federal Court argues that the Australian government has not done enough to secure the safety and wellbeing of all its citizens. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the government “has failed to protect them from climate change which now threatens their homes.”
By not addressing the threats of climate change to the Torres Strait Islanders people, Australia has denied the communities living on the islands their right to safety guaranteed by the government. If they win the case, it will force the Australian government to cut emissions more dramatically and provide more direct support in protecting environmentally vulnerable communities. Essentially, the purpose of the Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lawsuit is to find the Australian government guilty of not doing enough to limit the environmental damage caused by climate change.
In response, the Australian government has claimed that climate change is an issue all countries have contributed to and that putting the responsibility on just one is not fair. However, two scholars that provide research and support to the UN’s human rights council have voiced support for the Torres Strait Islander people on holding Australia responsible for partaking in an ongoing global crisis as they only seek to prevent further destruction of their home islands. Surprisingly, they have support amongst some Australian officials who have criticized the lack of an adequate response by the Australian government on climate change.
The success of the recent Federal Court case would set a precedent and pathway for other Indigenous peoples and communities most affected by climate change. As opposed to many lawsuits which are intended to create payouts as an admission of fault, this lawsuit is to reinforce the responsibility the government has to protect its citizens through cutting emissions and disaster mitigation as opposed to only investing in greener technologies. In addition, the decision could mean Australia’s national government would have to lower emissions even further and demonstrate that it is actively doing so.
What can one person do?
This story of the fight for the survival of the Torres Strait Islander peoples is reflective of what other Indigenous communities face in many other countries. Addressing the climate crisis in a way that will also solve ongoing and interlinking issues is the only just way of fighting climate change. A small decrease in emissions does not do much for those living in vulnerable environments and who deserve support to address the disasters affecting them.
To lend your assistance, find out whose ancestral lands you reside on. From there, research can be done to see what Indigenous peoples are calling for and how to lend assistance in the fight against climate change. Then, figure out if the climate change policies your representatives’ support include providing adequate resources for Indigenous communities and whether their response to climate change is equitable. Giving physical or financial support to Indigenous peoples can help more communities file claims for justice against their governments as well. Discussing your plans with friends and family can help generate community action and awareness of issues that are underreported in larger media spheres.