Zac’s journey as a climate justice campaigner

Zac’s journey as a climate justice campaigner:

The fight for the right to a healthy environment


As a teenage new migrant with a culturally and linguistically diverse background, who arrived alone in Australia in January 2020, I like a lot of other fellow young people was concerned about climate change but felt powerless to take action.

But the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire which remains the world’s largest in my short lifetime to date, was the awakening that had brought home to me the reality of climate crisis. The frequent broadcast by television channels then of video footage on desperate rescues of trapped humans and injured wildlife struck me with the seriousness of what I saw as a climate emergency instead of a gradual change in global climate still with plenty of time for remediation.

This disastrous episode of human-induced carnage of nature convinced me that I am among “…the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it”. I could no longer be an innocent bystander but had to make a personal contribution, however small, towards climate action as part of the broader pursuit of the attainment of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (“UNSDGs”).

I single-handedly convened Diet to Save Earth (“DTSE”) in late 2020 after having ‘survived’ not only the challenges and complexities of living in a new environment with a different culture but also the rather chaotic school year as well as the loneliness and anxiety from family separation caused by the onset of the pandemic. I and my fellow cofounders started the youth-led movement with the vision of educating and mobilising young people worldwide to be catalysts in encouraging their families, communities and societies to promote and adopt dietary changes as a powerful, far-reaching climate action which humans, especially those in developed economies, can readily and immediately take for the sake of the health of Earth and mankind whilst helping to contribute to the achievement of UNSDG 2, 3, 12 and 13 that are interconnected with human demand for food.

Through my involvement in different environmental groups, I came to learn about the Intergovernmental Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action (“the Declaration”), which 12 countries had signed upon its inception in 2019 with UNICEF, YOUNGO and the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative being its joint custodians. Yet, two years later, only Mexico among the G20 nations had signed the Declaration.

Despite the significant ramifications of signing the Declaration, I could not seem to find any campaign urging governments, especially those of the G20 nations to sign the Declaration. Since empowerment and involvement of youth by governments in relation to climate actions are important in the pursuit of DTSE’s goals, the advocacy campaign of e-petitioning Australia and 18 other G20 nations to sign the Declaration was launched during the Asia Pacific Climate Week 2021.

As part of the campaign strategy for Australia to try to bring the matter onto the national agenda, I filed e-petition EN2947 with the Federal Parliament, which passed the necessary signatory threshold and was tabled for the then Minister for Foreign Affairs’ response. The resulting official response extracted from the former Scott Morrison administration revealed the legal red herring to which it had resorted in justifying its refusal to sign the Declaration.

Specifically, the former Australian Government “…does not consider there is a universally accepted, standalone right to a safe, clean, and healthy environment under international human rights law (please refer to paragraph 1 of the Declaration)…” even though paragraph 1 of the Declaration merely requires a signatory country to “COMMIT, THEREFORE, to consider: 1. Advocating for global recognition and fulfilment of children’s inalienable right to a healthy environment, and to take steps to enshrine this right where appropriate into national, regional and global frameworks and/or national policies and legislation”.

The fact that the former Australian Government had to resort to the lack of compulsion under the vague “international human rights law” to justify its refusal to even just “consider…[a]dvocating for global recognition and fulfilment of children’s inalienable right to a healthy environment” despite that it was well within Australia’s national sovereignty to do so, reinforces my contention that adopting the Declaration has powerful legal implications.

DTSE shared such revelation on social media and with climate action groups as well as launched the “Be My Proxy” initiative in the lead-up to the last federal election to encourage adult family members to vote as proxies of children in their households and extended families. With the election of the Tony Albanese administration, I am leading DTSE to file a new e-petition with the House of Representatives and the Senate respectively to renew the push for the current Australian Government to sign the Declaration.

A highlight of the current campaign is that the Honourable Dr Monique Ryan, Federal Member of Parliament for the electorate of Kooyong, has chosen to read out my speech urging the adoption of the Declaration by Australia, in the House of Representatives during the Youth Voice in Parliament Week between 13th and 16th of November 2023 inclusive as part of the Raise Our Voice in Parliament campaign.

I believe the adoption of the Declaration by Australia together with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment 26 on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change would provide an international law framework that would complement and supplement the Climate Change Amendment (Duty of Care and Intergenerational Equity) Bill 2023 introduced by the Honourable David Pocock who is the Australian Capital Territory independent senator.

In particular, Paragraph 16 of General Comment 26 explicitly mandates that, pursuant to the Convention, “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration in the adoption and implementation of environmental decisions, including laws, regulations, policies, standards, guidelines, plans, strategies, budgets, international agreements and the provision of development assistance.”

Furthermore, Paragraph 17 states that “[t]he purpose of assessing the best interests of the child shall be to ensure the full and effective enjoyment of all rights, including the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” This, in my view, is a direct rebuke of the basis for refusing to sign the Declaration as espoused by the former Australian Government.

Therefore, I am excited that General Comment 26 would remove the lack of compulsion under international human rights law as governments’ excuse to justify their refusal to sign the Declaration and as their defence in legal challenges. I see it as a major boost not only to DTSE’s e-petitioning campaign but also to new court cases and legislative efforts seeking to establish a positive duty of care for politicians and policymakers to consider the impact of climate harm on young people and future generations.

At the international level, DTSE’s e-petitioning campaign has contributed to the effort of UNICEF, YOUNGO and the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative by promoting awareness of the Declaration among youths in many countries. I am particularly delighted that South Africa has become the second G20 signatory nation. DTSE had supplemented the use of private-sector e-petitioning platforms with the use of governmental e-petitioning platforms at different levels of government, to extract an official response from the Australian Government on its stance on the Declaration and its justification thereof thereby providing direction on the next stage of campaigning for remaining 18 G20 nations to sign the Declaration.

As the e-petitioning campaign progresses, DTSE has become a member of various renowned international networks of non-governmental organisations such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Committee on Capacity-building, Civicus, Youth Collective, Global Green, Earth Charter, etc. besides being an accredited civil society organisation of World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

As for me, I was honoured to have been invited to represent Australia as a delegate to the 16th UN Climate Change Conference of Youth which was an official precursor event of COP26 held in 2021 in the United Kingdom. I also received Global Youth Parliament’s Global Youth Leadership Award 2022 for Australia, a major highlight among the honours bestowed upon me.

Most recently, I was selected as an Australian delegate to the World Bank Group Youth Summit 2023.

Despite Australia being one of the biggest per capita polluters on Earth with the last Australian Government being rather passive in taking climate actions, DTSE’s e-petitioning campaign has demonstrated to the rest of the world that Australian young people stand in solidarity with their counterparts worldwide, particularly those in other G20 nations, to advocate for youth empowerment in climate action.

I hope politicians would recognise the merits of the strong moral and legal claim by children and youth who have no voting right, to be accorded by governments the right to be consulted on far-reaching decisions that would have an impact on climate change and for which such children and youth would bear the consequence when they become adults. Lest we forget the native American proverb that “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children”!

Let’s put our Earth where our mouth is!

  • To read the entire content of the Declaration, please refer here.
  • To read the entire content of e-petition EN2947, please refer here.
  • To read the entire content of the ministerial response to e-petition EN2947, please refer here.
  • To read the entire content of General Comment 26, please refer here
  • To read the entire content of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, please refer here
  • To read the entire content of Senator David Pocock’s private bill, please refer to the web page here