Australian islanders file landmark climate change complaint against government

One of the islands in the Torres Strait, Masig Island, which has suffered flooding in recent years.

(CNN)A group of indigenous people from low-lying islands off the coast of Australia on Monday lodged an unprecedented complaint against the country's government, accusing it of insufficient action on climate change.

The eight Torres Strait Islanders filed the complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, claiming that rising sea levels were having a devastating effect on their communities.
Around 4,500 people live on the Torres Strait Islands, a group of more than 270 islands lying between the north coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea. The complainants say their homes, burial grounds and cultural sites could disappear underwater in their lifetimes.
    Australia's failure to adequately address the problem was a breach of its human rights obligations to the islanders, they allege.
    "We're currently seeing the effects of climate change on our islands daily, with rising seas, tidal surges, coastal erosion and inundation of our communities," said one of the complaint's authors, Kabay Tamu, in a statement.
    This was also having an impact on "the social and emotional wellbeing of our communities who practice culture and traditions," he added.
    The complaint is the first legal action worldwide brought by low-lying islands against a nation state, said lawyers from environmental campaign group, ClientEarth, which is representing the group. It is also the first climate ligation against Australia on the basis of human rights.
    The group has asked the UN committee to rule that Australia should increase its emission reduction target to at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030, going net zero by 2050. It has also called for the phasing out of thermal coal, in domestic electricity generation and export markets. The committee's rulings are not legally binding, though states are obliged to consider them.
    In 2016 Australia became one of 185 countries around the world to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. But the target has been branded "insufficient" by research bodies.
    Australia relies heavily on coal-fired power plants, and the country's own Climate Change Authority has recommended more ambitious emissions targets.
    "Australia has done very little on climate change since signing the Paris agreement," Sophie Marjanac, the complainants' lead lawyer also told Reuters.
    "I don't think Australians realize that their fellow Australians are on the climate frontline -- they see it as an overseas problem but it's happening in their backyard," she said.
    A spokesperson for the Australian environment minister, Melissa Price, told Reuters that the government was committed to addressing climate change by meeting its international targets, investing in renewable energy technology, and protecting the environment.
      It was investing AUS$3 million ($2.1 million) in a Torres Strait development plan that included climate change issues, the spokesperson said.
      Late last year, Vanuatu's government said it was "exploring" whether to sue fossil fuel companies and the industrialized countries that use them for their role in the climate threat to low-lying islands.