First-of-its-kind case as student takes Government to court over climate change

University of Waikato law student Sarah Thomson is taking on the Government in court.
MIKE SCOTT/FAIRFAX NZ

University of Waikato law student Sarah Thomson is taking on the Government in court.

A student taking the Government to court for failing to properly address climate change will have her day in Wellington's High Court.

Sarah Thomson, 26, will have her case against Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett for the perceived failure to set emissions targets that reflect the science of climate change heard on Monday.

"Every year we're experiencing more extreme weather like cyclones, droughts and floods. Entire communities are being left devastated, yet our Government is burying its head in the sand," Thomson said.

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett says the Government is very comfortable its Paris target is fair and ambitious.

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett says the Government is very comfortable its Paris target is fair and ambitious.

While some have dismissed the action as a joke, Thomson will be climbing the court steps armed with affidavits from two of the foremost climate scientists from New Zealand and the United States, backed by lawyers from Auckland firm LeeSalmonLong.

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"The lawyers taking the case are incredibly experienced litigators, so it's not a case of David and Goliath, as people like to paint it," Thomson said.

While her case is a first in New Zealand, the trend of individuals and environmental groups taking governments to court has gained momentum globally.

A worldwide review of climate change litigation, undertaken by the United Nations and Columbia University, showed the number of countries with such cases has tripled since 2014.

As of March, they had been filed in 24 countries.

One of the targets under review is New Zealand's contribution under the Paris Agreement, which commits this country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 11 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030.

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Thomson was also critical of a target set in 2011, under the Climate Change Response Act, of reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2050 — a target she said was supposed to have been reviewed, but had not been.

"The point of it being reviewed is that climate science changes, and it changes fast, and right now the target isn't taking regard of current science."

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett said she was limited in what she could say, with the case before the courts.

"However, we are very comfortable that our Paris target is fair and ambitious, and that it was set only after a thorough process of consultation."

Victoria University professor and climate change expert James Renwick will provide evidence in the case, alongside Nasa Climatologist James Hansen, who has provided two affidavits in support.

Thomson said a rally was being organised to coincide with the opening of the case at 9am.

"I think it's a very strong message if, right opposite parliament, we have a lot of people supporting a case that's challenging our government's response to climate change," she said.

"I'm really excited because it's finally happening, but it also feels like an impending storm."

Ahead of the case, which was scheduled to take three days, Thomson also invited Prime Minster Bill English to dinner, so they could discuss her concerns.

"His secretary said he would consider it."

 - Stuff

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