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Where child rights meet environmental rights

05 December 2023, Action for Change, Climate

Young Australians want the right to a healthy environment enshrined in law

“Every young person should have the right to a safe and healthy environment,”  insists April Harrison, a survivor of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires. Her sentiment echoes the concerns of many young Australians, who are increasingly vocal about their environmental rights and the need for legislative change.

Survey findings: a call for action

A recent survey conducted by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) has brought to light the concerns of young Australians regarding their environmental rights. The poll, involving 1,700 Australians aged between 13 and 24, reveals a deep-seated belief among nine out of ten respondents in their inherent right to a healthy environment. Additionally, a significant 74% perceive climate change as a looming threat that will complicate their future, while the same proportion demands more governmental action to tackle this global challenge.

These findings are not just statistics; they are a clarion call from the youth for urgent action. They reflect a growing discontent among young people, who believe their voices on climate change are not being given the weight they deserve by federal authorities.

Intergenerational equity

Australia is falling behind other nations by failing to enshrine in law the right to a healthy environment.

Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO, ACF

The ACF's research report presents a series of recommendations aimed at the Australian government. Foremost among these is the proposal to enshrine the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment in a standalone federal human rights act. This recommendation is bolstered by calls for integrating children's rights into national environmental law, emphasising intergenerational equity, and introducing enforceable environmental standards. 

The report also advocates for an independent national EPA, a halt to land-clearing and native forest logging, maintaining the nuclear installation ban, and expanding public participation in environmental decision-making.

Kelly O’Shanassy, CEO of the ACF, highlights Australia's lag in global environmental governance, noting that “no Commonwealth, state or territory law expressly recognises the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” a right acknowledged in 161 other countries. This gap in legislative protection has spurred a movement of young Australians, who are actively voicing their demands for a safe and liveable future through street protests and legal actions.

Youth at the forefront

April Harrison's experience with the Black Saturday bushfires gives a personal and poignant dimension to these demands. Her perspective as a young Australian who has lived through environmental calamity underscores the urgency of the issue. She emphasises the importance of listening to and valuing the opinions and ideas of young people.

Echoing these sentiments, Mat Tinkler, CEO of Save the Children Australia, points out the disproportionate impact of climate change on children and the need for legal protections.

“As a major global emitter, Australia’s continued heavy reliance on coal, oil and gas comes at the cost of protecting the lives and wellbeing of children and future generations … Protecting the environmental rights and health of children should be enshrined in law to make sure our country is a place for children to flourish for many generations to come,”  says Tinkler. 

The research and its accompanying demands will be formally presented in Canberra by the ACF, Save the Children, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and Senator David Pocock. This event symbolises a united front of diverse groups and individuals, all advocating for the legal recognition of the right to a healthy environment, a fundamental step towards safeguarding the future of the planet and its youngest inhabitants.

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