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An Inconvenient Truth… Again?

By Adhina Jose

Ever since Al Gore’s release of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ in 2006, the demand for environmental security in a legal and political paradigm has been clear. Gore stressed that greenhouse emissions from First World nations, in particular the United States of America, made up a proportion of global greenhouse emissions that was greater than ‘South America, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Japan and Asia – all put together’. Although much of his work is now considered to be rhetoric rather than science, the global sentiment has shifted substantially since then in favour of action. However, the minimal change, the continued deterioration of the environment, and the lack of control regarding climate change provoke the questions: what are we doing, and are we doing enough?

This article argues for the further need for law reform, through analysing our compliance with current international and domestic regulations contemporary climate activism and protest movements, and insights and future recommendations. Despite the exponential growth in activism, minor institutional change has been implemented since ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. This inconvenience is ubiquitous. Even in 2023, there are concerns about family budgets and the bottom line, intangible climate ramifications on the lives of Third World individuals, and our ease of access of energy resources hazardous to the environment – inconvenience reigns. The call for rapid climate action balanced against the inadequacy of law reform leads me to wonder: is it time for us to address this inconvenient truth... again?

The current state of climate change activism is characterised by the continued growth of demand for tighter environmental regulation, aimed at addressing the damage caused by climate change. In 2021 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stipulated in its Working Group 1 Report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, that this growth continues to be ‘widespread, rapid and intensifying’. Further, this report states that, without greater action, the likelihood of global temperatures rising greater than current levels by 1.5°C is high, making prevention difficult and beyond reach. The seriousness of this data explains the changing values and actions of individuals in their fight for climate action, ultimately putting pressure on institutions to push for large-scale and rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

In the 21st century, climate protests are rampant. These protests demand tighter regulation of emissions and accountability in the political, legal and economic spheres. Greta Thunberg is a young environmental activist and global sensation, with her work and actions speaking to the current generation for substantive measures to address climate change. Thunberg catalysed a global response in 2018, as she led protests such as ‘Fridays for Future’. This caused a global response, which was primarily youth-led and aimed at pressuring nations to comply with their moral obligations to tackle climate change and arguing for the introduction of mechanisms to minimise greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia, the latest wave of climate change protests occurred in mid-to-late 2022, as the Blockade Australia activists began disruptions one Monday morning in response to Australia’s ecological destruction. This was met with police in response to what was seen as violent behaviour, causing 10 arrests for the disturbance of public order. Despite all of this climate activism happening now, there are some mechanisms as well as institutional support for addressing climate change.

Emerging international law doctrines regarding climate change and the work of the United Nations are continually undermined by one particular principle: state sovereignty. Through the exercise of this principle, states do as they please. However, a landmark was reached through the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer 1987, which was created out of growing fears of the hole in the Ozone Layer due to a heightened presence of ozone-depleting substances like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). This presence was due to human exploitation of hazardous chemicals. This Protocol was highly successful, as all United Nations member states were signatory to it, eventually reducing the presence of CFCs in the atmosphere. This is a profound example of the international community, despite the availability of state sovereignty as a means of avoiding action, acting unanimously to cultivate impetus and to stand side-by-side with fellow nation states to comply and act for intergenerational equity and the protection of our future.

To reduce global warming, the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 with 195 signatories. The Paris Agreement aimed at keeping global warming to ‘well below’ 2°C from pre-industrial levels and to actively try to limit warming to 1.5°C. Further, there are mechanisms in place that allow for this global stocktake and transparency to keep nations accountable. Every 5 years there is a meeting to assess the collective progress on achieving targets under the Agreement and to inform other nations of means of enhancing the efficacy of their responses. The Paris Agreement was complemented by the Kyoto Protocol and the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change to structure global cooperation on climate change issues. Despite this strong position from signatories, are the measures actually working?

Australia has adopted these international obligations to a certain extent to assist with the creation of a sustainable future. However, there is a clear tension between intergenerational and intragenerational equality, and global and domestic demand for resources. Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland Proserpine/ Whitsunday Branch v Minister for the Environment and Heritage and Ors (2006) 232 ALR 510 centred on the development of two Queensland coal mines. The result of this case was that the coal mines in question were built, despite calls for a proper evaluation of the environmental impacts of the mines. The Court found it was inconclusive as to whether the mines would cause serious irreversible damage to national heritage and biodiversity. So while international obligations are implemented in domestic legislation, including under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth), these obligations are difficult to enforce by virtue of inherent uncertainties and ambiguities in their drafting, as well as conflicts of interest that arise between Governments arguing for action on climate change whilst reaping the economic benefits of increased demand for Australian resources. Coal mining is an integral aspect of the Australian ethos that contributes significantly to the economy and continues to thrive, but it continues to have disastrous environmental ramifications that may never be properly addressed.

The Australian Government has recently introduced the Climate Change Act 2022 (Cth), which legislates our obligations under the Paris Agreement. This includes our obligations to reduce greenhouse emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by 2010, and a net zero target by 2050. Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen said in media release after the passing of this Act that, ‘current issues confronting Australian and global energy markets highlights why this long-term commitment is so important’ and hence this collaboration between different businesses, industries, unions and groups on a federal level are important. Community anger and sentiment directly arise from promises like this – these ambitious goals must align with positive action undertaken by the government, we cannot wait any longer.

Due to the unique biodiversity of Australia, it is essential that measures be implemented to counteract the hazardous effects of climate change on the health of our ecosystem. Although there continue to be conflicts of interest, the success of the Montreal Protocol 1985 speaks mountains of what the international community is capable of, with greater recognition that climate change is a force that should be addressed for intergenerational equity. Despite the development of strong international obligations, we must acknowledge the effects of climate change as having a disastrous impact on all of us. We must rapidly meet our obligations and work collectively towards achieving them as a nation. However, with the inaction, nothing has really changed. Climate change may forever remain an inconvenient truth in Australia… again.

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