Hearings begin into the sinking islands of Torres Strait

The Torres Strait Islands have been impacted by climate change for decades.

The Torres Strait Islands have been impacted by climate change for decades. Photo: AAP

For Boigu elder Pabai Pabai the stakes in the Australian climate case could not be higher – he says he is fighting for his people, his culture and his ancestors.

The Federal Court has held its first day of on-country hearings on Boigu island in the case, with Mr Pabai and uncle Paul Kabai launching legal action against the Australian government.

Faced with rising sea levels and destruction of their homelands, the two Torres Strait Islander elders are seeking orders from the court requiring the government to take steps to prevent more climate change-induced harm to their communities.

This includes cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the best available science.

Lawyer Fiona McLeod, who is representing the Torres Strait Islanders, said the need for urgent and serious action by the Commonwealth over climate change could not be overstated.

“Because many low-lying islands are barely metres above sea level – these places, and the entire area of Zenadth Kes (the Torres Strait Islands), are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change,” she said.

The homes of people in the Torres Strait could disappear beneath rising seas, making them Australia’s first climate change refugees.

Federal Court hearings will take place on Boigu, Badu and Saibai islands and in Cairns.

Community members will give evidence and the court will tour the islands to witness the damage to cultural sites, food supplies and homes.

Mr Pabai said he was born on and belonged to Boigu.

“I will lose everything if I am removed from my own country,” he said.

“I am taking this case for the betterment of my country, the betterment for my family and my community. It’s not only for me, it’s for the ancestors and the land that I am born to.”

Mr Pabai and Fred Pabai gave evidence at Monday’s hearing, detailing how culture is passed down from generation to generation in long-standing oral traditions.

Isabelle Reinecke, from not-for-profit litigation company the Grata Fund, which is supporting the case, said heavy rain in what was supposed to be the dry season on the first day of the hearing illustrated why the islanders were bringing the action.

“I think it’s a complete game changer to have the court actually here on the islands when you’re talking about a culture that is so deeply rooted in place,” she said.

Mr Kabai said they were bringing the case because their islands were sinking.

“We have to do it for our younger generations, otherwise we will become climate refugees,” he said.

“We want to hold onto our own land because our culture and identity stays there. If our islands go under we will be nothing.”

The government has a 2050 net-zero emissions target, which experts say will not be enough to prevent disaster in the Torres Strait.

The court will hold another hearing on Boigu on Tuesday.


Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.