A 23-Year-Old Filed A World-First Climate Lawsuit in Australia

A climate strike in Sydney, Australia. (Photo: Saeed Khan, Getty Images)
A climate strike in Sydney, Australia. (Photo: Saeed Khan, Getty Images)

Looks like Gen Z is at it again with the climate lawsuits, this time in Australia. Kathleen “Katta” O’Donnell, a 23-year-old college student in Melbourne, launched a world-first lawsuit against the Australian government on Tuesday, alleging that it has misled investors in sovereign bonds by failing to disclose climate-related risks.

In the suit filed in Australia’s federal court, the fifth-year law student at La Trobe University said that investors who buy these government bonds are owed this information because the country’s economy will be significantly impacted by its response to the climate crisis. The claim also says that climate disasters may make it more difficult for Australia to pay back its debts. It’s the first case in the world that grapples with the material risks that the climate crisis will pose to the global sovereign bond market O’Donnell isn’t just speaking about hypothetical investors, she owns government bonds herself through a national pension program.

“Katta owns Australian Government Bonds that mature in 2050, by which time — should the government fail to enact effective policies — the impacts of climate change are expected to be severe,” Equity Generation Lawyers, a Sydney-based firm who are backing the suit, said in a statement.

Australia is on the frontlines of the global climate crisis, and it’s not just its economy that is suffering as a result. Earlier this year, the country made horrifying headlines as we watched massive wildfires burn over 48 million acres of land, destroying communities and ecosystems. 2019 was Australia’s warmest year on record, and conditions are projected to get even hotter and drier in the future. Yet the Australian government has taken a notoriously lax approach to the crisis, continuing to extract fossil fuels and resisting climate action. Earlier this month, a report found the country will likely totally botch the goals it set for itself under the Paris Climate Agreement.

O’Donnell’s lawsuit is a class action one, and she’s representing not just herself but all current and potential investors in government bonds traded on the Australian Securities Exchange. Rather than seeking any monetary damages, it aims to force the government to declare that officials breached their duties. It also calls on the court to issue an injunction to prevent the government from promoting government bonds until they update their disclosure information for investors to include language about climate change risks. Rather than monetary damages, the suit is asking the government to acknowledge its failure and a halt to promoting bonds until financial disclosures include climate risks.

The case comes two months after 25 Australian youth filed a lawsuit to stop a coal project in Queensland. That was the country’s first suit that brought human rights arguments to a case about greenhouse gas emissions and the climate crisis. It seems Australia would be be better off if its officials listened to the kids and young adults.