Māori Activist’s Climate Case Will Go to Trial

Dairy producer Fonterra is among New Zealand's largest carbon emitters. (Credit: Jason Oxenham/Getty)

By Karen Savage

A New Zealand court has agreed to hear a lawsuit filed by a Māori climate activist against seven of the nation’s leading carbon polluters over their contributions to climate change.

Mike Smith, chair of the Climate Change Iwi Leaders Group of the Iwi Chairs Forum, filed the case last year against four fossil fuel firms — Genesis Energy, Z Energy, NZ Refining, and BT Mining — as well as NZ Steel and two food and farming companies, Fonterra and Dairy Holdings.

Smith has asked the court to implement a plan that would force the companies to reduce their net carbon emissions to zero by 2030.

In his March 6 decision, High Court Justice Edwin Wylie dismissed claims of public nuisance and negligence, but allowed the question of the firms’ legal duty to stop emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases to go to trial. “It may be that a novel claim such as that filed by Mr. Smith could result in the further evolution of the law of tort,” Wylie stated in his ruling. “It may, for example, be that the special damage rule in public nuisance could be modified; it may be that climate change science will lead to an increased ability to model the possible effects of emissions.”

“These are issues which can only properly be explored at trial.”

New Zealand’s indigenous Māori communities, and their traditional customs and cultural sites, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to a 2017 government report. In early 2019, the New Zealand Herald reported that the collapse of “a Māori burial site atop a cliff in the Bay of Plenty...onto the beach below, scattering human remains into the sand and the sea [was] not an isolated incident, with hundreds of coastal urupā across the country threatened by rising seas and increasing storm events.”

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