Scientists testify in Torres Strait climate case

The climate case has moved to Melbourne after hearings on Torres Strait islands and in Cairns.

The climate case has moved to Melbourne after hearings on Torres Strait islands and in Cairns. Photo: AAP

Torres Strait Islander elders are fighting for their lands, culture and existence in the first climate class action brought by Australia’s First Nations people.

With rising sea levels and other effects of climate change threatening their islands and way of life, elders Pabai Pabai and Paul Kabai launched a Federal Court case against the federal government in October 2021.

The elders are arguing the Commonwealth owes a duty of care to Torres Strait Islanders to take reasonable steps to protect them from the harms caused by climate change.

The court held on-country hearings on Badu, Boigu and Saibai islands in June, and Cairns in July and has moved to Melbourne from Wednesday.

Experts have begun giving evidence on the impacts of climate change and sea level rise experienced in the Torres Strait.

Torres Strait Islander witnesses shared cultural and personal stories at the on-country hearings earlier this year, explaining how climate change was impacting the island way of life.

Kabai told AAP that during his lifetime he had already seen the seasons change – and with them opportunities for hunting and fishing.

“We have these big inundations during monsoon season, which mean our water system, the island wells and everything is contaminated by salt,” he said.

He said he has a responsibility to protect his homelands, community and culture from climate change.

“Our message to the Australian government is that we can’t wait any more years for climate action,” Kabai said.

“If all they do is continue to talk and not listen to the scientists, our communities will disappear and we will lose everything.”

Pabai said if the government continues to fail his people, they will be forced to leave their homelands.

“On Boigu, the land is being eroded, our soil is being ruined by salt and the storms are becoming worse,” he said.

“From the land, to the sky, to the seas – we are the people of the culture.

“If we are forced to leave our homelands, we will lose everything, our identity, our culture – everything.”

The court will hear from a range of experts in climate science, health and marine biology.

Boigu and Saibai are flat, low-lying islands, about one and a half metres above sea level, meaning they are particularly vulnerable to rising seas.

Both islands are now frequently flooded by sea water, particularly during king tides, which is already affecting housing, infrastructure, cultural sites and gardens where people grow vegetables.

Further hearings in the case will be held in Cairns in April with a decision anticipated later in 2024.


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