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As Australian teens launch major climate lawsuit, this 86-year-old nun stands with them

by Michael Taylor | @MickSTaylor | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 10 March 2021 14:44 GMT

Octogenarian nun Brigid Arthur pictured in Melbourne, Australia. Credit Brigit Arthur

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Eight teens have brought a landmark court case that could make it harder for coal mines to be approved in Australia. Brigid Arthur, an octogenarian nun, didn't think twice when asked to support them

By Michael Taylor

March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Octogenarian nun, Brigid Arthur, lost faith in Australian politicians a long time ago - making her a natural ally for defiant teenagers seeking to force action on climate change.

Equally fed up with political foot-dragging, the 86-year-old has joined eight students from across Australia in a landmark case seeking to block the expansion of Whitehaven Coal's mine in New South Wales state.

The lawsuit, which held its first hearing last week, argues that environment minister Sussan Ley has a duty of care to protect young people from climate change that endangers their future.

If successful, it could make it more difficult for coal mines to be approved in Australia, one of the world's largest per capita carbon emitters which is highly reliant on coal exports.

"Our governments, for quite a long time now, seem to be swayed by short-term objectives, and in particular getting elected in the next election," said Arthur, who spent years to working with children as a teacher and principal.

"They seem almost unable to do anything that is going to be a bit unpopular but in the long-term good for the country," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the southern city of Melbourne, citing climate, refugee and economic policies.

The environment ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Climate change has long been a divisive topic in Australia, where the conservative government has won successive elections on a platform of supporting the fossil fuel industry, despite a push from environmentalists for greener policies.

Devastating bushfires last year, Joe Biden's new green-leaning U.S. administration, and the United Nations climate summit in November are adding to pressure on Canberra to set a goal to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

"We've always had bushfires ... but it's only in the last 20 years or so that we've had these huge, almost uncontrollable fires," Arthur said in a telephone interview.

"We've (also) had lots of cyclones. All of these things always existed ... but I believe they are increasing in ferocity and their frequency. It is very scary."


As a Brigidine Sister - a Catholic order founded in Ireland more than 200 years ago - Arthur devoted much of her life to education in its Brigidine Colleges - and in 2001 set up the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project, a charity.

She did not think twice when lawyers involved in the climate lawsuit asked her to be the litigation guardian for the students, aged 13 to 17, who - as minors - legally required an adult to give instructions on their behalf.

"It was an easy sell. I passionately believe that we are doing damage to our planet, and seeing the world as we know it dying around us," said Arthur, who has cropped grey hair and glasses.

"While I'm no expert about climate change, I can't see how people and the world cannot believe that we have a total moral duty to do something about it."

Australia is seen as a regional laggard on climate by some green groups, who cite pledges for zero-emissions by mid-century made in recent months by China, Japan and South Korea.

Climate Action Tracker, which measures government actions in relation to the 2015 Paris Agreement to tackle global warming,  rates Australia's policies as "insufficient", highlighting its continued support for the coal and gas industries.

In an interview with The Australian newspaper this year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a devout Christian, said he would not introduce a new carbon emissions target ahead of the U.N. conference, and was instead focused on technological fixes.

"I've lost a lot of faith in our current government. I don't think I'd have much in common with Scott Morrison at all - either religiously or any other way," said Arthur. 

"He is often described as a marketing person - and without wanting to stereotype him - that's what comes across too."

She said the "smart kids" involved in the Melbourne lawsuit had all taken part in the global youth climate strikes - launched by teen activist Greta Thunberg - and they hoped to create a "tipping point" for governments to take climate action.

"Young people getting energised is capable of energising adults too," she said, adding that the next big wave of asylum seekers would be the result of climate change.

"The more that young people become active, there is potential for enough pressure to be put on the government to make their policies much more active."   

A judgment is not expected for several months.

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Climate change lengthens Australian summers by 50% - study

After fires, Australia gets ready for floods

(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Katy Migiro.  Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)