By Kenny Stancil | 30 March 2023
Climate justice advocates cheered Wednesday after the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on climate change and human rights.
The newly approved measure, introduced by Vanuatu and co-sponsored by more than 130 governments, asks the world’s highest court to outline countries’ legal responsibilities for combatting the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency and the legal consequences of failing to meet those obligations.
“We have witnessed a win for climate justice of epic proportions,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau said after the resolution was adopted by consensus. “Today’s historic resolution is the beginning of a new era in multilateral climate cooperation, one that is more fully focused on upholding the rule of international law and an era that places human rights and intergenerational equity at the forefront of climate decision-making.”
Like other Pacific Island nations, Vanuatu bears little responsibility for the climate crisis but is acutely vulnerable to its impacts, including existentially threatening sea level rise and intensified cyclones such as those that displaced thousands in the region just weeks ago. The country began pushing for the ICJ resolution in 2021, following a campaign launched in 2019 by a group of students from a university in nearby Fiji.
The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) hailed its passage as “a historic moment.”
“It is so decided”
🎉 This is a historic moment and a win for climate frontlines communities across the world. pic.twitter.com/bX6BHwztTW
— Center for International Environmental Law (@ciel_tweets) March 29, 2023
So too did Marta Schaaf, director of Amnesty International’s Climate, Economic, and Social Justice program.
“This is a landmark moment in the fight for climate justice as it is likely to provide clarity on how existing international law, especially human rights and environmental legislation, can be applied to strengthen action on climate change,” said Schaaf. “This will help mitigate the causes and consequences of the damage done to the climate and ultimately protect people and the environment globally.”
“We salute this remarkable achievement by Vanuatu, and other Pacific Island states, which originally brought this urgent call to advance climate justice to the U.N.,” Schaaf continued. “Today’s victory sprang from the efforts of youth activists in Pacific Island states to secure climate justice.”
Schaaf urged the ICJ “to provide a robust advisory opinion to advance climate justice.” Last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she noted, shows that “the 1.5°C global warming limit agreed to in Paris in 2015 is likely to be breached before 2035 unless urgent action is taken.” Temperature rise of roughly 1.1°C to date is already fueling catastrophic weather, with even more lethal impacts on the horizon barring transformative action.
“We see some fossil fuel-producing states both resisting calls to phase them out, and falsely promoting carbon capture and storage as a technological fix for the climate,” said Schaaf. “An advisory opinion from the court can help put a brake on this accelerating climate disaster.”
The UN General Assembly has unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to clarify the obligations of states under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system. 👏
— Alexander Verbeek 🌍 (@Alex_Verbeek) March 31, 2023
CIEL’s Climate and Energy program director Nikki Reisch also applauded the resolution, saying it marks an important step “toward clarifying what existing law requires states to do to curb climate change and protect human rights.”
Despite volumes of indisputable scientific evidence highlighting the need quickly replace fossil fuels—the leading source of greenhouse gas pollution—with renewables, last year’s COP27 negotiations ended, like the 26 preceding U.N. climate summits, with no concrete commitment to wind down coal, oil, and gas production.
In the absence of a needed crackdown on the fossil fuel industry, immensely profitable oil and gas giants are planning to expand their operations in the coming years even though their executives know it means locking in additional planet-heating emissions and cataclysmic temperature increases.
While a handful of Pacific Island governments are leading calls for a global just transition to clean energy, other governments are actively aiding the continued extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.
Earlier this month, for instance, the Biden administration, which claims to view the climate crisis as an existential threat, approved ConocoPhillips’ Willow project in the Alaskan Arctic—the largest proposed oil drilling endeavor on public land in U.S. history—and moved ahead with Lease Sale 259, one of the largest-ever offshore drilling auctions in the Gulf of Mexico.
As CIEL pointed out, “impacted communities across the globe are finding themselves with few alternatives but to resort to courts in their pursuit of clear rules to guide state climate action and hold states accountable for their failures.”
According to The New York Times:
The [ICJ’s] opinion would not be binding. But, depending on what it says, it could potentially turn the voluntary pledges that every country has made under the Paris climate accord into legal obligations under a range of existing international statutes, such as those on the rights of children or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That could, in turn, lay the groundwork for new legal claims. (A few national courts have already relied in part on international law to rule in favor of climate activists’ lawsuits.)
With the #ICJAO resolution, States are asking the @CIJ_ICJ to issue an opinion on whether governments have legal obligations to protect people from #Climate hazards & more crucially, whether failure to meet those obligations could bring legal consequences.https://t.co/9uHHZdVCIW
— Center for International Environmental Law (@ciel_tweets) March 31, 2023
Courts play a critical role “in breaking through the inertia when politics break down,” said Reisch. “Courts can translate the clear scientific evidence that fossil fuels are driving the climate crisis into clear legal imperatives to phase them out now and implement proven available solutions. They also can—and indeed must—hold states accountable for the mounting suffering caused by their failure to act.”
Describing climate justice as “both a moral imperative and a prerequisite for effective global climate action,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called the ICJ resolution “essential.”
Advisory opinions issued by the world’s top court “have tremendous importance and can have a long-standing impact on the international legal order,” he added. Such a move “would assist the General Assembly, the U.N., and member states to take the bolder and stronger climate action that our world so desperately needs.”
The passage of the ICJ resolution comes just days after a pair of scholars put forth a novel legal theory of “climate homicide,” which aims to hold fossil fuel corporations criminally liable for disaster deaths.
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