Australia's Greta Thunberg Moment? Melbourne Student Sues Government

Australia's Greta Thunberg Moment? Melbourne Student Sues Government


  • The lawsuit alleges the Commonwealth of Australia and two government officials for failing in their duty to disclose how climate change would impact the value of government bonds.
  • Katta O'Donnell, like many others, has lent government money through superannuation.
  • O'Donnell is concerned over climate change impacts on Central Highland forest as it is listed critically endangered by IUCN.
  • Australia is on 56th rank in dealing with climate change amongst 61 countries, with no improvement in policies since 2017.

Katta O'Donnell, a 23-year-old Australian student, has filed a lawsuit against the Australian government for failing to apprise the stakeholders about the climate change-related risks associated with government bonds and other risk-free investments. Ms O’Donnell filed the civil action suit in the Federal Court on Wednesday, 22 July.

O'Donnell invested her money through super to protect her future. The recent wildfires which killed at least 33 people and millions of animals, made her worry about the value of her bonds.

Melbourne-based Equity Generation Lawyers is representing Kathleen (Katta) O'Donnell.

An Australian Treasury spokesperson said that they are aware of the case but declined to comment further.

What are Government Bonds?

Government bonds are investments where you lend money to the government. In return for your investment, you will receive regular interest payments, known as coupon payments. When you hold a bond that you have invested in until maturity, you receive the face value of the bond.

Most Australians invest in government bonds through compulsory superannuation. Both mandatory and voluntary contributions into the system have reflected in a significant contribution to national saving. The invested money goes towards building infrastructure and fund essential services such as health, welfare, and national security.

These bonds are a defensive asset. They act as a consistent source of income to protect the money you invest. They are hence less risky than growth assets like shares and property.

About the Case:

The lawsuit alleges the Commonwealth of Australia, as well as two government officials for failing in a duty to disclose how climate change would impact the value of government bonds. Katta O'Donnell is the head litigant for the class action suit. She hopes that the case would change the way Australia handles climate change. She believes that being 23 years old, she needs to be aware of the risk she's taking while investing her money. O'Donnell is also concerned about the whole of society and the Australian economy. 

Katta is among countless retail investors, pension funds, central banks, insurers, and hedge funds which, combined, have loaned the Australian government over A$700 billion.

The purpose of this is to make the government responsible for making the investors and common public aware of the risks they are facing related to climate change.

DO READ: Climate change- A boon or bane for Australian Stocks

What is Australia Doing to Tackle Climate Change?

When Australia faced devastating bushfires and historic heatwave, Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended his government to stand on climate change. Australia is one of the largest per-capita greenhouse gas emitters but has set a target to reduce emissions by 26-28% by 2030. The country is in accord with the Paris Climate Agreement to deal with rising temperature.

The map above shows the aggregated results and overall performance of evaluated countries in handling climate change.

According to the UN, there have been no modifications in climate change policy since 2017, and the set numbers are way above the target. Australia is ranked 56th in dealing with climate change amongst 61 countries. The US is at the 61st position, Canada is on 55th position, and New Zealand is ranked 37; the United Kingdom is ranked 7th. These rankings are from the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2020.

ALSO READ: Bushfires and Insurers’ Approach To Address Ongoing Crisis

The opposition Labor Party have accused the government saying its "refusing to act" on climate change issue. However, the government maintains its say on the mission to reduce the emissions by 2030. Industry experts believe Australia, one of the most abundant fossil fuel producers, has failed to take a considerate amount of actions on climate change.

Australia has abundant energy source and is leading in the export of coal, uranium, and LNG. However, the country is going through significant changes and increasing its footprint in alternative energy such as wind and solar. As per the International Energy Agency (IEA), energy security concerns are high in the country, and consistent energy and climate framework are needed to ensure continued and adequate investment in the energy sector.

Source: IEA

The above data represents the total Australian primary energy supply (TPES) by source, for the period 1990-2018.

Government Policy on Climate Change:

Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF)

Last year, the government announced a Climate Solutions Fund offering an additional A$2 billion spend over 15 years to help businesses and farmers reduce emissions, bringing up total investment in ERF to A$4.55 billion. It will cut 100 million tonnes of emissions.

Who is Katta and Why She is Leading the Lawsuit?

Kathleen (Katta) O'Donnell is a 23-year-old, fifth-year law student studying at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Katta grew up in Healesville in the Central Highlands, which has previously been ravaged by bushfires. She is highly concerned about the climate change impacts on the mountain ash forest ecosystem. Victoria's Central Highland forest is listed critically endangered and at risk of collapsing by (International Union for Conservation of Nature) IUCN.

Katta is also concerned about the exacerbated risk to Indigenous communities. As per Australia's royal commission registered evidence, indigenous people in many areas are twice as likely to be impacted by the fires.

In a somewhat similar incident two years ago in 2018, when the whole world was discussing climate change and its effects, a 15-year old Swedish student Greta Thunberg sparked an international moment to deal with climate change. Her pictures with handwritten board poster "School strike for climate" went viral. Greta is now a climate youth activist and has inspired millions of other young students across the globe to question governments on their dealings with climate change issue.

Click here to know more: Climate Change: How Will Greta Thunberg And Attenborough Together Make A Difference

In 2016, 21 students from the US planned to sue the government stating that it was failing to protect the future from the impact of climate change. They filed a lawsuit in Federal Court in the state of Oregon. Among them is Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh Martinez who was then 15-year-old student, raised this issue at the United Nations three times. She is an indigenous American hip-hop artist.

Few years back, 900 citizens and climate change organisation took their government in court in the Netherlands. They group won the battle and the Dutch government was ordered to take actions in reducing emissions.

In Australia, with the first-ever step taken by Katta O'Donnell, the whole world now awaits the consequences of O'Donnell v The Commonwealth lawsuit.


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