A boy pulls a toy on a string beside a sea wall. This photo of Saibai island in the Torres Strait was taken by Brad Marsellos and posted to Flickr.

Is the Australian Government doing enough to counter the impacts of climate change on Torres Strait Islander communities?

Is the Australian Government doing enough to counter the impacts of climate change on Torres Strait Islander communities?

Anna Alex – PHAA intern

Back in May 2019, a group of Torres Strait Islanders lodged a landmark climate and human rights case with the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Submitted by a group dubbed the Torres Strait 8, the claimants say the Australian Government breached their human rights by not effectively reducing emission of greenhouse gases and facilitating adaptation to the impacts of climate change the Islanders face.

Essentially the case argues that the Australian Government owes its citizens a duty of care (under the United Nations Declaration on the Human Rights of Indigenous People and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) in providing adequate protection of their human rights to life and culture. Irrespective of the cause of the threat, the Government should take positive action to continue the preservation of these rights from both direct and indirect threats and more importantly, not carry out actions that further increase harm.

However, almost two years later, the Australian Government’s final reply to the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee denied responsibility by arguing Australia was already doing enough on climate change. The Australian Government has maintained that it cannot be held solely responsible for a global phenomenon. However, the Government’s recent budget allocation to fossil fuel projects and inability to commit to ambitious emission reduction targets fail to display alignment to such a statement.

The Australian Government has been under much scrutiny to strengthen its short- and medium-term emission reduction efforts, and commit to a net-zero emissions by 2050 target, under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to which it’s a signatory. Similar expectations from the nation have been conveyed in the past, such as, in the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in 2019, and through the open letter to Scott Morrison in December 2020 by Pacific Island leaders.

The impact of climate change is experienced by everyone, but vulnerable communities with possibly the lowest carbon footprint are at the frontline of experiencing its early and devasting effects. The unequal burden of climate change faced by vulnerable communities has also been highlighted through the PHAA policy position statement on safe climate  and climate refugees. The PHAA further argues that developed nations, like Australia, have a moral obligation in providing assistance to affected communities.

The Torres Strait Islander communities, comprising 19 communities across 16 islands, are among many small island populations across the globe facing a similar fate. With an average elevation of one meter above the sea level, some of these islands are severely threatened by the rising sea levels, increase in sea surface temperatures, and changing rainfall patterns.

Torres Strait Islanders have reported increased coastal erosion, flooding of their houses, sacred burial grounds, and cultural sites. Communities also expect further degradation of underground freshwater quality, loss of marine ecosystems, and damage to existing essential infrastructure such as housing, sewage, water and power supply in future.

Yessie Mosby, from Masig Island, one of the Torres Strait 8 group, that brought the human rights case against the Australian Government says:

“Our fear is getting evacuated from this place. Leaving our genealogy behind, our lineage behind, our family remains behind. Having our life become history.”

As conditions worsen the communities will witness a loss of adaptive capacity and ecosystems on which they rely. For a community that is deeply connected to its land and culture and dependent on its ecosystem, this loss of nature can be detrimental to people’s emotional, mental and physical health.

Concerns regarding these prospects are consistent with the IPCC report on the consequences of climate change on small islands. The World Health Organisation, United Nations and others have repeatedly urged countries to put the health and welfare of vulnerable communities at the forefront of climate action decisions.

In Australia, Indigenous communities are often highly vulnerable to climate change due to their relative isolation, lack of access to support services, limited adaptive capacity, and pre-existing social inequities. Torres Strait Islanders have been historically disadvantaged and face pre-existing health and social inequities compared to non-Indigenous Australians.

Torres Strait Islanders have relatively higher rates of mortality and morbidity, and die eight years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians also report a higher prevalence of food insecurity, ranging between 22-32 per cent of the total population. These inequities are a result of broader social determinants of health prevalent in the community.

The Torres Strait Islander community faces an existential threat to their way of life and culture. Nature and human health are interconnected. Climate change increases the threat of infectious diseases, as well as heightens food insecurity as fertile lands are lost, and water quality deteriorates. This leads to malnutrition and an amplification of pre-existing health conditions on the islands.

The impacts of climate change will setback the progress being made in closing the health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and threatens to perpetuate another cycle of trauma wherein our most vulnerable communities are left to fend for themselves.

The Torres Strait Islanders have garnered support for their case from the international community. The current and former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, Professor David Boyd and Professor John Knox, both believe this case could set a global precedent. Both have backed the complainant’s case by submitting an independent legal brief to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

“By failing to accept that climate change is affecting the Torres Strait islander people, failing to substantially reduce emissions, and failing to facilitate adaptation to the changes, the Australian Government isn’t meeting their human rights obligation,” Professor Boyd said.

Australia’s Minister of Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt continues to advocate that the Government is “confident its climate change policies are consistent with international human rights obligations”.

The challenges faced by the Torres Strait Islanders are central to reassessing our response to social injustice and understanding its interconnectedness to health outcomes. The right to life and health are basic human rights protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 3 , which states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

Australia could face a potential human rights crisis if adequate measures aren’t taken to counter climate change. The nation currently lacks a comprehensive policy recognizing climate refugees, which seems to be the probable fate of the Torres Strait Islander in the coming decades as their islands increasingly turn uninhabitable due to climate change.

Climate change is currently the biggest threat to human health. The global health community has recently come together with an open letter  to  Heads of State prescribing urgent climate action, of which the PHAA is a signatory, along with 48 other Australian health organisations.

As stated in the PHAA position on safe climate, there is an urgent need to provide active assistance to the Torres Strait Islanders and better facilitate adaptative measures by the Government. With the UN COP26 climate conference starting in late October, the Australian Government needs present a greater commitment to climate action and give proper consideration to the impacts of climate policies on health and social inequities in evaluating climate policies.

Image: Saibai Island in the Torres Strait, by Brad Marsellos/Flickr.

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