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Hamilton Student's Lawsuit Over Climate Change Policy Today

Hamilton student to battle NZ Government in landmark climate lawsuit

Friday, June 23: A law student from Hamilton is preparing to challenge the Government in the High Court on Monday over what she says is a “failure” to properly address climate change.

Sarah Thomson, 26, claims that New Zealand’s targets under the Paris Climate Agreement are “unambitious” and fail to reflect scientific consensus on climate change.

The case, which is the first of its kind in New Zealand, will be heard over the course of three days from June 26 in the Wellington High Court. Members of the public are expected to gather outside the court on Monday morning in a show of support.

Thomson says she decided to launch the lawsuit two years ago after becoming “terrified” about what her future could look like.

“We’re already seeing the effects of climate change right now. 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, business as usual,” she says.

“As a young person with my future on the line here, I’m terrified at how blasé our Government’s response to climate change has been. I never want to have to look my kids in the eye and explain to them how we let this happen.”

Thomson says she’s been inspired by climate change litigation around the globe, including the 900 Dutch citizens who filed a case the Dutch Government and a case in the US where 21 kids are suing the Federal Government.

She has the backing of several world-renowned climate change experts, including the “father of climate change awareness”, former NASA researcher, James Hansen, who is giving evidence in the case.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) author and Victoria University of Wellington Professor, Dr James Renwick, is also giving evidence.

Renwick says New Zealand’s targets for emissions reduction aren’t good enough. One of the targets under review is New Zealand’s contribution under the Paris Agreement, which commits New Zealand to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 11% below 1990 levels by 2030.

“It is now recognised that the world must get to zero emissions as quickly as possible, preferably by 2050 with emissions starting to decline no later than 2020, if we are to meet the Paris goals,” he says. “New Zealand must play its part and ramp up its emissions reduction goals urgently.”

The lawsuit will ask the Minister for Climate Change Issues, currently Paula Bennett, to justify the way in which New Zealand’s climate targets have been set.

In her preliminary Statement of Defence, Bennett has denied that the Government needs to set a target that strengthens the global response to climate change to hold warming to below 2°C.

But Thomson says as a developed country, New Zealand has an obligation under the Paris Agreement to take a global lead in combating climate change.

“So far, the Government has shirked its responsibilities by saying New Zealand is too small to make a difference, but it's just not a legitimate excuse when we're facing a problem that requires global action and accountability.",” she says.

“The case is about transparency and accountability. On the issue of climate change, the Government has been persistently evasive. In court it will have to justify its inaction on climate change before a judge and before the New Zealand public.”

Thomson has also released a video inviting Prime Minister Bill English to dinner while she’s in Wellington to talk through her concerns about the Government’s response to climate change. The video makes reference to English’s now infamous taste in pizza toppings.



New Zealand has the second-highest level of greenhouse gas emissions per GDP unit in the OECD and the fifth-highest emissions per capita. A recent Greenhouse Gas Inventory report confirmed that as of 2015, net emissions have increased by 63.6 per cent since 1990.

More info

Information about the public gathering outside the Wellington High Court here.

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