Australian Student Sues Government Over Financial Risks of Climate Change

SYDNEY, Australia — Katta O’Donnell grew up with a fear of fire. As a child, she remembers burning bark falling from the air because of wildfires. This year, she worried that the blazes sweeping across regional Australia, fueled by climate change, could destroy her home outside Melbourne, the same way they had turned thousands of acres into ash.

Now, Ms. O’Donnell, 23, is leading a class-action lawsuit filed on Wednesday that accuses the Australian government of failing to disclose the material risks of climate change to those investing in government bonds. The suit accuses the government and the treasury of breaching its duty by not disclosing the risks of global warming and their material impact on investors.

It is the first time, experts say, that such a climate change case has being brought against a sovereign nation.

Ms. O’Donnell is joining a wave of young climate activists who have stepped on to the world stage in recent years. The Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, for example, has spurred a global protest movement, testified before the United States Congress and the European Parliament, scolded world leaders in a fiery speech at the United Nations for not doing enough and sounded that alarm at the World Economic Forum in Davos, declaring, “Our house is still on fire.”

But Ms. O’Donnell’s case takes a unique tack by focusing on government bonds and the investment environment, said Jacqueline Peel, a law professor at University of Melbourne.

“My personal experience with climate change makes everything I read about climate change more tangible,” Ms. O’Donnell, a fifth-year law student at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said in a recent interview. “I want my government acting with honesty and telling the truth about climate risks.”

Simply put: Any risks to the country’s economic growth, value of its currency or international relations, to name a few factors, might change the value of her investment, her suit states.

Ms. O’Donnell, backed by a team including two prominent lawyers, is not asking for damages, but wants the government to step up on its climate change policies. The suit seeks an injunction stopping the government from further marketing bonds until they add those disclosures.

Credit…Molly Townsend

“The claim asks for disclosure of risks — it doesn’t tell the government what to do or how to act,” said David Barnden, one of three lawyers representing Ms. O’Donnell. All took her case free, they said.

“All routes are crucial, and we will need to unite.” she said. “But investment and the economies and the climate are all so closely linked, and that really needs to be highlighted.”

“The government knows about the problem,” she added. “They know the solutions, and they know what they need to do but they’re not doing it.”

Mr. Henderson said he expected the case to prompt those in other nations in follow suit: “Other people will be saying, hang on what about our government?”

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