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Why I’m taking the NZ government to court

I realised that politicians can’t always be trusted to act in the best interests of the people or the planet, and felt compelled by an irresistible force to do somethingwrites Sarah Thomson, ahead of a date at the High Court in Wellington this month

The day it really hit home was when I listened to James Hansen – the man who warned the world about climate change in the 1980s and whom NASA tried to silence – give a talk comparing climate change to an asteroid speeding towards Earth. The longer we delay taking action, the harder it will become to divert.

I looked around me to see if anyone else was worried about this rather large problem hurtling towards us. Surely, at least the government would save us from impending doom.

But the more time went on, the more conscious I became of how backwards the whole situation was. I wasn’t a climate change expert, but I could see that as far as diverting the asteroid went, we were doing about the equivalent of laying out a runway and waving glow sticks at the thing.

In my own city, the illustrious Tron, big, new, expensive roading projects were under way while public transport and cycleways were given second class treatment. More exploration for new oil was also happening in New Zealand waters, even though we know the majority of the world’s existing known oil reserves can’t be used if we’re to avoid a climate catastrophe.

It didn’t make sense. It made me furious. What kind of a mess were we going to leave our kids to live in? What would we say to them when they asked us what we did about it? And that’s when I realised that the Government can’t always be trusted to act in the best interests of the people or the planet. I felt compelled by an irresistible force to do something.

Most of us feel that the only power we have to change the laws that govern our lives and the world around us is the piece of paper we put in the ballot box every three years. But there is one last line of defence where ordinary people can use the laws already in place to create change: the courts.

In November 2015, inspired by climate change litigation overseas including a case in the Netherlands where 900 Dutch citizens filed as plaintiffs, and in the US where 21 kids are taking a lawsuit against the Federal Government, I filed a legal action challenging the New Zealand government’s inadequate response to climate change. The case was the first of its kind here.

I was a student at the time, still in the midst of preparing for university exams, and with no experience in litigation. But I found a team of lawyers who shared my concern and who were ready to fight a battle all the way to the highest court. I was fortunate to also receive support from leading climate change experts, including New Zealand Professor James Renwick, and the very man who opened my eyes to climate change: James Hansen.

The case challenges the emissions reduction targets set by the minister for climate change issues, who was then Tim Groser but is now Paula Bennett. One of the main claims is that the target to reduce emissions by 11% below 1990 levels adopted by New Zealand under the Paris Agreement is “unlawful and unreasonable”.

‘It made me furious’: Sarah Thompson. Photo: Peter Drury

My reasoning, in part, is that the minister’s decision making process was flawed because she failed to take into account relevant considerations. For example, she considered economic modeling on the cost of reducing emissions (namely through buying carbon credits), but completely ignored the alternative scenario: the effects of dangerous, unmitigated climate change on New Zealand, and the cost of these effects, if we do nothing.

The target itself is also unreasonable, because global scientific consensus shows that it falls short of the extent and speed of emissions reductions needed to prevent dangerous climate change.

Eloquent as always, the prime minister at the time, John Key, dismissed the legal action a “joke”.

But almost two years on, the lawyers and I are set to have a substantive three-day hearing in Wellington High Court beginning 26 June, right opposite parliament. No matter the judge’s verdict, the facts are finally going to be laid out on the table, and the reasons used by the government to justify lack of action will be tested.

The government says our country is too small to make a difference to the global effort to reduce emissions, but I say that we are all accountable for our emissions, no matter what our size. In the Netherlands, the judges presiding over the case agreed: They ruled that climate change is global issue requiring “global accountability” and ordered the government to increase its targets to reduce emissions. While the case is under appeal, it has created an irreversible movement in that community towards a carbon zero future, which no appeal can change.

Being an ordinary citizen hasn’t been a barrier to achieving justice in New Zealand either, and on numerous occasions we’ve used the court system to change the course of history. Just look at Kristine Bartlett, who after five years in court, has just secured the biggest pay rise care workers have ever seen in this country. And Lecretia Seales, who brought national attention to the issue of euthanasia when she claimed that the Crimes Act is inconsistent with her right to life and the right to not be subject to cruel or degrading treatment.

Since filing the climate case, I have received an inflow of support from people all around New Zealand. I hope that during the three days in the High Court, I can help these people give voice to their concerns; and that this is a way for our collective calls to action to be heard, and listened to.

The world is teetering on the brink of irreversible and catastrophic climate change. I remain optimistic that we still have time to divert it.

But to do so we need to ditch the glow sticks and get out the big guns.

See you in court, Paula.


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