Torres Strait elders fear becoming climate refugees

Rudi Maxwell |

Torres Strait Islanders are challenging the Commonwealth for failing to act on climate change.
Torres Strait Islanders are challenging the Commonwealth for failing to act on climate change.

Torres Strait Islander elders are grieving as their ancestral homes are slowly being taken by the sea.

But they are fighting too – and two elders, Pabai Pabai and Paul Kabai, have taken the Australian government to court for failing to act on climate change.

Closing arguments for the uncles continued in the Federal Court in Cairns on Tuesday.

Mr Pabai and Mr Kabai are seeking orders from the court that require the federal government to take steps to prevent further harm to their communities, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the best available science.

Mr Kabai said he hoped the world would hear the islanders’ voices.

“Saibai and Boigu are low-lying, our islands are sinking, that’s why me and Uncle Pabai have put our hands up … to say to the government ‘listen to us’,” he said. 

“It’s time now for change, otherwise it will be too late.

“If the government doesn’t listen to us, we will be climate change refugees in our own islands.”

The Torres Strait Islanders brought the case in 2021 and are arguing that the impacts of climate change are devastating to island customs.

Over several on-country visits in 2023, the court was shown how rising seas were destroying cemeteries, making food difficult to grow and ruining important cultural sites.

In court on Tuesday, barrister for the islanders Tomo Boston argued a previous decision from the United Nations should be taken into account.

In September 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee found the Australian government was violating its human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islanders by failing to act on climate change.

The Commonwealth seemed to be arguing they couldn’t be held accountable for things they said in the international arena, or to treaties they’d ratified, Mr Boston said.

The government promised to protect the traditional way of life under a Torres Strait Islands Treaty between Australia and PNG. 

But the marine inundation and erosion that happened year on year on the Torres Strait Islands was inconsistent with that promise, he said.

Mr Boston used several of the government’s own policies to demonstrate they’d been aware how vulnerable the Torres Strait Islands were to climate change.

The islanders also argued a 2015 report to the government on emissions reductions and climate change ignored the best available science.

The report did not consider the impacts on Australian people, including Torres Strait Islanders and other vulnerable communities.

Australia set an emissions target without grappling with what the science said should have been done, lawyers for the islanders said.

The hearing continues.