Australia is already paying more for the federal government’s inaction on climate than fossil fuels bring in, analysts warn as missed economic opportunities mount.
The warning comes at the end of a milestone week for climate change litigation in which the federal court found the government has a duty of care to protect young Australians, revealing that inaction will cost young people up to $245,000 each over their lifetimes.
But analysts say those costs are just the tip of the iceberg.
Death, disease, more pandemics and property damage caused by unmitigated global warming are in store for future generations of Australians if the nation does not act now and start transitioning to renewables, they warn.
Climate Council economist Nicki Hutley said burning fossil fuels was already costing Australia in lives, job generation and health impacts – and would soon cost the country in tax hikes.
“We’re already at the point [it’s costing us],” Ms Hutley told The New Daily.
“The most reliable modelling suggests every tonne of coal produced now, it costs us $100, and that’s conservative.
“If we go on a 3- or 4-degree [Celsius] warming path, I don’t think people understand it’s not about the country getting a bit warmer … These are our environmental systems; they’ll collapse.”
Ms Hutley said the cost to every Australian, both young and old, would be “astronomical if we don’t act”.
“On average, we’re going to have a COVID-sized economic shock every single year,” she said.
“We listened to the science on COVID but it cost us to keep the virus under control. [Climate inaction] would deliberately put us there year after year.”
At the end of the day, it will be citizens, not the companies that have caused climate change, left to to pick up the bill, Ms Hutley said.
“Fossil companies aren’t paying. Ultimately, we’ll all pay the price. We’ll bear it in lost lives, lost health and loss of economic livelihoods,” she said.
Government owes a duty of care
On Thursday Justice Mordecai Bromberg found Morrison government environment minister Sussan Ley had a duty to protect future generations from climate change after eight teenagers and an octogenarian nun sought an injunction to prevent the minister from approving an extension to the Vickery coal mine in northern New South Wales.
In evidence that was accepted by both the federal government’s legal team and the judge, a consultancy firm specialising in the impact of global warming, Climate Risk, revealed the economic cost of climate change on each young Australian lives would run into the hundreds of thousands.
Climate Risk examined the impact of climate change on house values, wage growth and business continuity after extreme weather events and found children would forego between $125,000 and $245,000 each due to climate change impacts.
Speaking for the children after the decision, 17-year-old Ava Princi said it was “thrilling and deeply relieving” that duty of care had been recognised.
“I am thrilled because this is a landmark decision,” Ms Princi said.
“My future and the future of all young people depends on Australia stepping away from fossil fuel projects and joining the world in taking decisive climate action.”
President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance Greg Barns SC said the decision was “groundbreaking”.
“His judgment is not radical, it’s an extension of fundamental principles of negligence,” Mr Barns said.
“When there is foreseeability of harm, you have a duty as a person in a position to prevent it, to do just that.”
Could Australians sue previous governments?
When asked if the judgment opened the door for citizens to sue previous governments for their inaction on climate change, Mr Barnes said it was a “new area of law” but “you couldn’t rule it out”.
He said although the science had been there before the Howard era, there had not, until this week, been a legal precedent of recognising the duty of care.
“It’s been established now. The ramifications of the judgment leave it open,” Mr Barnes said.
Importantly, the decision has opened the gates for more cases like it, he said.
“It means governments are on notice when they make decisions or if they fail to take mitigatory action … they could be in breach of their duty of care.”
This week climate change litigation also made headlines internationally.
In the Netherlands, energy giant Shell was ordered by a court in the Hague to slash its greenhouse gas emissions.
Elsewhere, climate change activist investors won seats on ExxonMobil’s board, while Chevron investors passed resolutions on climate change.
The tide is turning
Australia Institute climate change and energy director Richie Merzian said the tide was turning on climate change inaction – and governments and corporations would soon be held to account for failures to act.
“The carbon disclosure project worked out that from 1988 to 2015 ExxonMobil was responsible for around 2 per cent of global emissions,” Mr Merzian said.
“In Australia, we’re [responsible for] 1.3 per cent, so some of these corporations are more responsible than countries.”
Renewables generate three times more jobs in Australia than either gas or coal-fired power stations, Mr Merzian said.
“On all fronts, fossil fuels have struggled in comparison,” he said.
The Morrison government is doing nothing to mitigate the onslaught of extreme weather events and the possible litigation caused by climate change, Mr Merzian said.
“The Australian government knows its main trading partners are going to net-zero. But in the meantime, they’re trying to promote and expand and sell as much [fossil fuels] as they can,” Mr Merzian said.
“The world we take for granted right now won’t be there for the next generation and it’s the fault of the current generation.”