A Duty to Care about Climate Change: Activism, Apathy and Action
Last week in a decision that has been hailed as 'historic' and a ‘global first’, the Federal Court of Australia found that environmental minister, Sussan Ley, has a duty of care to protect young people from future harm caused by climate change. The case, brought forward by eight teenagers representing ‘all young Australians’ in September 2020, applied for an injunction to stop approval of the Whitehaven coal mine expansion in Vickery, NSW. Whilst the injunction itself was not granted on legal and technical grounds, the ruling of an existing duty of care to protect citizens from climate change has created shockwaves in the legal community.
But why is it so important?
‘Buzzwords’ and trending phrases have dominated the modern news cycle almost daily with the rise of social media and performative activism. Upon opening social media apps like Instagram, we are greeted with hashtags, slogans, and aesthetic fact sheets that are direct, succinct and memorable, which have two purposes – to ensure that the public takes notice of the issue and more importantly, takes action. However, there is a downside. When combined with the fast-paced and profit-driven modern news cycle, and the capriciousness of social media, overexposure to these ‘buzzwords’ generates apathy. And its impacts are devastating.
Climate change is one of the biggest examples of activism-driven apathy.
The prominence of climate change in the global social and political consciousness is no new phenomenon. Scientists and activists have been calling for increased action to combat climate change for decades. It has even been labelled the ‘biggest threat modern humans have ever known’. And yet, climate change remains a topic of controversy.
This is partially due to the nature of the modern global economy. For decades, climate change has been profitable. Societal progress has been driven by the overwhelming mass consumption of the mining of natural, non-renewable resources, which creates wealthy conglomerates who have built their success on a legacy of destroyed bedrock, and governments who escape culpability by pointing at the unearthed riches. Governments have only recently begun to acknowledge climate change for the threat that it is, taking politically crafted countermeasures that tread the line between tokenism and confrontation.
The other reason is apathy. Climate change’s constant presence in the news cycle and in the global consciousness has generated large-scale indifference. This is particularly evident in the Western world and big cities (some of the largest contributors to pollution), where the actual, tangible impacts of climate change have often been mitigated by the creature comforts that we are afforded due to privilege and technology. The ‘distance’ of the everyday individual from the global trend of climate change has created an atmosphere of resignation for many. An atmosphere where climate change is increasingly seen as an unsolvable, insurmountable, and untouchable threat.
However, we cannot afford to be apathetic. The current young, and future generations do not have the same luxury of ignoring climate change in the hopes of it not affecting them during their lifetimes. And paradoxically, our wider societal inaction and apathy is creating a new issue: climate change is also costing us our mental health. ‘Eco-anxiety about the future’ is wreaking havoc on the mental health and wellbeing of young people, according to Imperial College London’s Emma Lawrence, both through direct psychological trauma, and indirect stress. Rising temperatures have also been found to have an impact of rates of suicide – one study showed a 1% rise with each corresponding 1C rise in temperature. Climate change is not a show we can watch unfold, unbothered by the scenes on our screen as if they exist in a different world. It is the responsibility of governments and institutions with power to take decisive and impactful action now, before we bequeath to future generations both a climate change and mental health crisis.
This is why the Australian Federal Court’s decision is so significant. It is the unfortunate symptom of politics that governments will often not act unless they are required to do so – whether out of obligation or legal duty. The ruling that a duty of care exists to protect from climate change-related harm arising from the exercise of statutory powers is an important first step in ensuring that science and the law work together to preserve our future. It imposes a common law duty on the environmental minister to consider young people when making decisions about coal mining, and sets an important legal precedent for future cases about climate change – of which there will be many.
Hopefully, it is the first step in changing the course of climate change.