Bushfire survivors are taking legal action to force the New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority to address climate change.

EDO is representing a group of people from around the state, who have experienced first-hand the devastation caused by major bushfires – infernos made more likely and more intense by climate change.

After the worst bushfire season on record in 2019/20, the group – Bushfire Survivors For Climate Action – is using the law to ensure the authority tasked with protecting people and the environment does so effectively.

It’s a case with the potential to help our communities emerge from the current COVID-19 crisis stronger, smarter, and more resilient to catastrophic climate change.

No Carbon Emissions Policy

The unregulated release of greenhouse gases is the greatest threat to the environment and people of NSW, but the current emissions reduction trajectory for the state is not in line with the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5ºC.

At present, the NSW Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) has no policy to adequately address climate change and does not regulate the state’s emissions.

The Bushfire Survivors For Climate Action are launching this case to encourage – and if necessary compel – the EPA to develop policies and guidelines to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and ensure a safe climate.

The EPA is an agency with teeth, and it is in a unique position. There is no federal EPA, and no independent federal agency has the same powers.

The agency has the power to issue licenses to control pollution, as well as putting caps and prices on substances which are harmful to the environment.

EDO will argue on behalf of the Bushfire Survivors For Climate Action that the EPA is not only explicitly empowered by its legislation to take strong action on climate by controlling the emission of greenhouse gases, it is also required to do this under its own laws.

Bushfire Survivors

Jo Dodds with her horse Rafiq.

EDO’s clients in this case are Australians that have seen the devastating loss of lives, livelihoods and property that bushfires can inflict on communities, and want authorities to do more to protect them and future generations.

Bushfire Survivors For Climate Action spokesperson Jo Dodd’s life was changed when fires raged through the idyllic seaside town of Tathra on the NSW far south coast in March 2018.  

The Bega Valley Shire Councillor watched in horror as the fire closed in on her farm outside the village.

The blaze, which destroyed 65 homes, was sparked by powerlines and fanned by unseasonal hot, dry winds.

“My partner had time to set up sprinklers around our home then we stood on the riverbank two kilometres downstream and watched over four hours as the fire approached and grew into a towering, terrifying inferno. 

“We saw the forest burn and the plumes of black smoke rising from the homes of friends and neighbours as we waited for the fire to reach our home. We heard gas cylinders exploding in town, saw traumatised people being evacuated in over-crowded cars and even in boats being towed behind vehicles. 

“We were incredibly lucky that the wind stopped just as the fire reached our property and all we physically lost was some building timber. 

“But we also lost our sense of safety, our peace of mind, our beautiful forest drive into town, and our friends and neighbours whose homes burned to the ground now live elsewhere while they struggle with the myriad traumas, tasks, and griefs they must now face.”

– Jo Dodds, Bushfire Survivors For Climate Action

The burnt-out remains of buildings on a cliff in Tathra in 2018.  Image by PhilipThompsonPhotography.com under CC Licence.

The Case

Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action Incorporated v Environment Protection Authority

On behalf of our clients, EDO is bringing Class 4 Proceedings, or civil enforcement litigation against the EPA.

We are seeking orders from the NSW Land and Environment Court to compel the EPA to protect the environment by regulating the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This case is about ensuring our key agencies have the tools they need to manage the global crisis of catastrophic climate change, which fuels bushfire disasters and other extreme weather events here in Australia.

It seeks to empower the NSW EPA to perform its duty according to law, and protect the people and environment of NSW from global warming.

The EPA has been served with a summons to appear in the court, with the first directions heard on 8 May 2020. On 26 October 2020, the Court made orders permitting our client to adduce expert evidence from former Australian Chief Scientist Professor Penny Sackett. Professor Sackett’s evidence is due to be filed on 12 February 2021, and the next directions hearing will be held on 16 February 2021.

The EDO is grateful for the assistance of Richard Beasley SC and David Hume of counsel who are briefed to appear in this matter, and Geoffrey Kennett SC who appeared in our client’s successful application for leave to adduce expert evidence.

Related Documents

Across Australia, communities like this are on the front line, defending their homes and our future against the impacts of climate change. 

You can help them by donating to our Environmental Defence Fund.