Pacific Island Nations Advance Legal Climate Responsibility

Pacific Island Nations Advance Legal Climate Responsibility

At the Pacific Islands Forum last week, delegates from 14 nations declared a climate emergency for the first time, and took steps toward getting the International Court of Justice in the Hague (ICJ), the world’s highest court, to put out an advisory opinion on the climate crisis. The island nation of Vanuatu, represented at last week’s forum, has been working for years on the initiative to get the ICJ to hold big-emitting countries responsible for protecting the rights of “present and future generations” from climate impacts. Island nations like Vanuatu are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Their literal existence is threatened by rising seas fueled by emissions they didn’t produce.

International Finance Corporation: Nations such as Vanuatu are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, April 21, 2022.

Vanuata ICJ: Vanuatu Prime Minister ICJ Climate, May 17, 2022.

Al Jazeera: Vanuatu considers suing major polluters over climate change, February 3, 2019.

Why This Matters

The advisory opinion would not be binding, but it could be a game-changer for national courts to use as precedent to hold countries accountable. Given that the climate crisis is disrupting fundamental human rights like access to food, housing, and water -- and that emissions continue to climb -- this statement would match the moment. It could also pave the way for more “loss and damage” liability by acknowledging that climate change impacts will require more than mitigation and adaptation but also action after climate-fueled disasters. During June’s UN climate meeting, rich countries blocked this kind of compensation from the agenda of the upcoming COP27.

“You are essentially first talking about putting human rights at the center of climate change discussions,” Vishal Prasad, a Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change campaigner, told TIME. “When you have the court clarify what the obligations of states are, what the state needs to do at minimum to protect the rights of its people and those to come, it will also help strengthen existing mechanisms and processes that seek to address the climate crisis.”

New York Times, November 12, 2021.

Source: Global Carbon Project.

Note: The rich, developed countries group is based on the United Nations’ Annex II definition. International transport is not counted as part of either group’s total emissions. The data reflects territory-based carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement, but does not include land-use and forestry. The graphic shows emissions from countries and territories.

Robin Hood: "This is Loss and Damage | Who Pays" narrated by Mark Strong, September 23, 2021.

DW: This is just how unfair climate change is, May 21, 2021.

Euronews: UN Secretary-General says the climate crisis is placing half of humanity in 'the danger zone,' June 14, 2022.

What’s Next

For the ICJ to act, the next step is securing a simple majority vote during the upcoming September United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It seems doable, as the 14 countries represented by the Caribbean Community; the 79 represented by The Organisation of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OCAPS); and Australia have all expressed support.

The Guardian: One of the greatest injustices': Pacific islands on the frontline of the climate crisis, Oct 25, 2021.

WW0 COP26 Talks: Surangel Whipps, President of the Republic of Palau, November 3, 2021.

PBS: Melting of the Thwaites Glacier could rewrite the global coastline, December 15, 2021.

MSNBC: 'Doomsday Glacier' | Experts Raise Alarms About Cracking Antarctic Ice Shelf, December 30, 2021.