Legal accountability for the impacts of climate change?

Legal accountability for the impacts of climate change? 

How Vanuatu and the younger generation are pushing climate justice into the forefront 

Lena Dente, Senior Programme Manager, Energy and Just Development 

Climate change is arguably one of the biggest challenges of our time, and its impacts are felt disproportionately by vulnerable communities around the world. Climate justice seeks to address this imbalance by ensuring that those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are not unfairly burdened with the consequences.  

One country at the forefront of the climate justice movement is Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific. According to data from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Vanuatu’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 were only 0.002% of the world total. However, the country is one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with rising sea levels, more frequent and severe tropical cyclones, and ocean acidification threatening its very existence. The 2020 Climate Risk Index by Germanwatch ranked Vanuatu as the fourth-most affected country by climate change over the past two decades, with an estimated 2,341 deaths and economic losses of $477 million.

Taking Action 

In 2018, Vanuatu launched the Vanuatu ICJ Initiative, which called on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide an Advisory Opinion (ICJAO) on the responsibility of states to prevent climate change and the impacts on the rights of people beyond national jurisdiction. On 29th March 2023, the United Nations General Assembly will vote on this issue. 

The Initiative is spearheaded by Vanuatu on behalf of a coalition of over 120 nations including Pacific Island nations, which are also among the most vulnerable. This campaign led to the formation of the organization, World´s Youth for Climate Justice, which represents the voice of future generations in this important issue.   

The Vanuatu ICJ Initiative argues that climate change is a threat to the fundamental human rights of people around the world, and that states have a legal obligation to take action to prevent it. The Initiative calls on the ICJ to clarify the legal obligations of states under international law, including the duty to prevent harm and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. 

In addition to the rights of people currently affected by climate change, the Initiative also highlights the importance of considering the rights of future generations – that they are not unfairly burdened by the consequences from the climate crisis and that they have a right to a safe and healthy environment. Climate change is an intergenerational issue, and is an important principle of climate justice, recognizing that present generations have a responsibility to ensure that the needs of future generations are not compromised.


Potential International Impact 

The Initiative represents a landmark moment in the climate justice movement, as it highlights the urgent need for action regarding the unequal impacts of climate change. It also is a testament to the leadership of young people and small island nations in the fight against climate change.   

If the ICJ issues an advisory opinion in support of the initiative, it could establish a legal precedent for holding states accountable for their actions on climate change. This could lead to stronger international cooperation and action on climate change, as well as greater recognition of the rights of vulnerable communities and future generations.   

Furthermore, this could lead to greater recognition of the principles of intergenerational equity and earth trusteeship in international law and that could have implications for a range of environmental issues beyond climate change.


World Future Council Engagement 

Alyn Ware, Councilor and Co-Chair, Peace and Disarmament Commission of the World Future Council serves as an advisor to young leaders and lawyers working on the ICJAO. Alyn has been engaged in several ICJAO campaigns over the years. One of the founding Councilors of the World Future Council, H.E. Judge C.G. Weeramantry, Former Vice-President of the International Court of Justice, wrote a celebrated dissenting opinion in a case related to nuclear weapons, which may serve as a precedence that will inform this new effort at an ICJAO on climate change. 

The World Future Council will continue its support for this Initiative building on its contributions in the areas of just development, the rights of future generations and highlighting future-just policies.