Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific, has spearheaded a campaign to pass a pioneering resolution at the United Nations, urging the world’s highest court to weigh in on the role national governments must play in stemming emissions and fighting climate change. The advisory opinion requested could impact thousands of lawsuits filed worldwide against governments for their inaction in addressing the crisis and could even lead to penalties for the biggest polluters. While any opinion issued by the International Court of Justice would be non-binding, it could shape pending litigation and influence the adoption of climate pacts that might follow the 2015 Paris Accords.
Vanuatu has been disproportionately impacted by climate change, with people facing twin cyclones this month alone. The resolution was put forth by youth activists from throughout the Pacific Islands who launched Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change in 2019, with the singular goal of seeking an advisory opinion on the issue from the international court. They worked with the Republic of Vanuatu to put forth the resolution, which more than 120 member states have since signed on to.
The effort to get the advisory opinion started in 2011 when representatives from the Marshall Islands and Palau attempted to pass a similar resolution, which the United States opposed. Michael Gerrard, founder of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, was involved in the 2011 effort and credits a political shift on climate for leading to this victory.
The push for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice comes at a time when other international courts are also hearing cases related to climate change and human rights. The same day that the UN issued its resolution, the European Court of Humans Rights heard a case, brought by a group of elderly women in Switzerland, arguing that climate change is a human rights violation. Additionally, Chile and Colombia are making a similar claim and have requested an advisory opinion from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The resolution passed by the UN is a significant step towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically SDG 13, which calls for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. The involvement of civil society and youth activists in the process highlights the importance of engaging all stakeholders in the fight for sustainability and addressing the urgent need for action on climate change.
While it remains to be seen where the International Court of Justice will land on the issue, the resolution passed by the UN sends a clear message that the global community is standing together in the fight against climate change. The decision could be a landmark ruling, shaping the future of climate litigation and influencing the adoption of climate policies worldwide. It is a victory for Vanuatu and youth activists who have worked tirelessly to bring attention to the urgent need for action on climate change.