Anjali Sharma is a 19-year-old veteran of climate activism and one of the most impressive teenagers you’re likely to meet.
In the summer after she finished high school, when most teenagers hit the beach, or the bars or sleep off the year’s hard work, Anjali was researching constitutional law with a team of experts, searching for ways to stop new polluting coal and gas projects. Anjali’s path to climate activism started early because the climate crisis hit home in a deeply personal way.
“I’m from India and all of my extended family still live in India. India is a country that has been for a long time – and still is – on the front line of climate change. We’ve seen the monsoon season be incredibly unpredictable in recent years, it starts early, it's heavy and brings horrific rains that cause flash flooding and take countless lives."
"We’ve seen heatwaves that melt asphalt, birds fall from the sky and rubbish catch on fire."
Motivated to take action, at 14, Anjali got involved with School Strike 4 Climate, a grassroots student-led movement pushing for climate action. She became an organiser for the group and helped coordinate Melbourne’s largest climate strike that saw more than 100,000 people take to the streets of Melbourne protesting climate inaction.
“Nothing will top that ever.
"We had no idea how big it was going to be and it was just so fulfilling. Me and my friend led chants from the stage. As we were yelling into the crowd, people were looking at us and yelling back, it was that connection between someone you don’t know, someone you’ll never see again, but is standing with you so symbolically and wanting the same things that you do, no words describe it.”
The school strikes were incredibly successful, bringing masses of people into the streets around the country, forcing climate change into the national conversation, but Anjali wanted to find a way to force decision makers to take more meaningful climate action.
In 2021, Anjali and seven other teenagers took Environment Minister Sussan Ley to court to try and stop her from approving the expansion of Whitehaven’s Vickery coal mine in New South Wales.
The legal team representing the group of teenagers argued the federal environment minister had a duty of care to protect young people against future harm from climate change. The federal court of Australia initially found the Environment Minister Sussan Ley did have a duty of care to protect young people from the climate crisis, but the ruling was later successfully appealed and that judgement overturned. The court ultimately decided that the duty of care should not be imposed on the minister.
"One of the reasons we were found to not have the winning argument was because the court believed it wasn’t their role to impose this duty of care, not because the duty of care itself didn’t exist. We interpreted that as a mandate then to demand that politicians step in where the courts have failed."
After the federal court overturned their initial judgement in favour of the teenagers' case, Anjali was disheartened, but she was also determined to keep fighting for a safer climate.
"When my year 12 finished I started reaching out to policy experts and environmental lawyers and policy strategists and started building this body of research looking at how we could implement a duty of care into statutory law."
This concept of a duty of care, is about making politicians consider the future harm they could cause young people when deciding to approve or deny projects – projects like coal mine expansions or gas exploration and extraction – that will increase climate pollution and fuel natural disasters.
After months of working with policy and legal experts, Anjali took their body of research to politicians in Canberra, looking for someone to take on the job of getting the duty of care concept legislated. In August this year, independent Senator David Pocock introduced a private senator's bill calling for an amendment to Australia’s Climate Change Act.
Senator Pocock’s proposed change would require the federal government to consider the health and wellbeing of young people and future generations when making decisions that could significantly increase climate pollution. If the bill is successful, it would mean decision-makers could not make decisions that pose a material risk of harm to the health and wellbeing of Australian children.
The bill is currently before the Australian senate, and Anjali is hopeful it will be successful and that the future of young Australians will rightfully be protected.
"Above all we’re being handed this future within which to live our lives and what it looks like should be negotiated and constructed by us."
Anjali’s extended family is still her main motivation for change.
"I’m seeing the impacts getting worse and worse in India, heatwaves and floods becoming more and more destructive and common. Villages in India like the one my family lives in, often don’t have the resources to even safeguard themselves from the next one or rebuild after any disaster that’s just happened."
The scale of the change we need to make our climate safe can sometimes feel overwhelming, but Anjali knows that people power is crucial to creating momentum. While young leaders like Anjali inspire us, we all have our part to play in building the future that we need, one where nature and people thrive.
"If you lean all your weight against this injustice and you feel you’ve failed to make the change that you want, you have to remember that the weight is cumulative. As more and more people join with you, leaning their weight against this injustice, together we will get to a point where we reach the outcome that we want. The power of collective action can’t be overstated."
Header image. Anjali Sharma speaking outside court. Photo: Equity Generation Lawyers