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A student’s environment is their castle: The fight to save the world from coal

Kaitlyn Fasso-Opie  |  02 November 2020

It sounds like the plot of a really great movie: an 85-year-old nun, and eight teenagers take the government to court to fight for the environment and save the world. But fortunately, this story is reality, not fiction.

Brigidine Sister Brigid Arthur and Australian students Anj Sharma, 17, Izzy Raj-Seppings, 13, Bella Burgemeister, 14, Laura Kirwan, 16, Veronica Hester, 17, Ava Princi, 17, Tom Webster, 15, and Ambrose Hayes, 15, have enlisted the help of Equity Generation Lawyers to stop the approval of a New South Wales coal mine. 

In August, the group lodged an injunction in the Federal Court, to prevent Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, from giving final approval to the Vickery coal mine extension project, in north-west NSW.

The class action, known as Sharma v Minister for Environment, is open to anyone under 18 to register worldwide. 

Sr Brigid became involved as people under 18 cannot legally take a case to court.

‘They need someone to represent them — so there was a request from the lawyers for me to come on board as a litigation guardian’, she says.

‘The implications of climate change will be much more extreme for younger people, and it is this particular mine that’s in question at the moment and so that’s why we’re challenging it.’

Sr Brigid says the students got to know each other through the September 2019 Global Climate Strike, part of the school strike for climate movement, inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.

‘I do feel very passionately about the fact that it’s young people who will be affected (by climate change) in terms of health, the natural environment and the economy’, she says.

‘And the people who are charged with protecting our globe and our country from global emissions need to take note of that. Any one project is important — because of this huge amount of carbon emissions that it’s going to produce over its lifetime.’

She says it seems like a ‘no-brainer’ to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies in Australia, with wind and solar power so available.

‘That just seems to me such an obvious thing that we should be doing’, Sr Brigid says. ‘We need to take mining really seriously and make the change. It may not be cost effective immediately, but over time it will be.’

David Barnden is the principal lawyer at Equity Generation Lawyers and is representing the students, whom he says would otherwise be shut out of the legal and democratic processes.

Mr Barnden says the case was born after his firm contacted School Strike 4 for Climate Australia, which then provided instructions to proceed. 

‘It’s a real privilege to be able to represent these young people and give them a voice… we’re behind them 100 per cent’, he says.

Enter Bella Burgemeister, a 14-year-old student from Bunbury in Western Australia.

She says Slack, an online tool used by workplaces and organisations worldwide, including School Strike 4 Climate, is how the group of eight core students involved in this court case first got to know each other.

‘We have different channels on Slack that we use’, Bella says. ‘There is a national one, a state one and a local one, and we have Slack or Zoom meetings almost every week.

‘There are also a few people in the national group who go onto the worldwide Slack channel, and take feedback and ideas about what we’re doing nationally in Australia. It really is a grassroots movement.’

Bella says she became involved in the case ‘because climate change is such a huge issue to me’ and she was concerned about the increasing ferocity of bushfires, and severity of drought in Australia. 

‘(But) not all the coal from this mine is going to be burned in Australia, it’s going to be exported and burned all over the world — that’s the important thing to remember’, Bella says.

‘Being part of this is important because it’s a giant risk. I’m really hoping other people step up — it’s a worldwide case, so other young people can register. It’s the best thing people can do around this mine and the effect it will have on our futures.’ 

> For more information about School Strike for Climate, visit: www.schoolstrike4climate.com/about

 

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