The world’s top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), will prepare an advisory opinion on countries’ legal obligations to combat climate change, following a UN resolution by Vanuatu, a low-lying Pacific island nation facing peril from rising sea levels.
The resolution was supported by more than 130 countries and was greeted with cheers. While the ICJ’s legal view would be non-binding, it could then be cited in climate court cases around the world.
Vanuatu’s UN resolution seeks legal clarity on responsibilities for climate change, emphasizing that it is not seeking the court’s opinion to put in place new restrictions but to clarify existing obligations to prevent harm to the environment.
Supporters of the ICJ decision believe that governments may learn that not curbing warming gases breaks international law, and it may shape UN negotiations on climate change, and impact decisions by fossil fuel companies on their long-term investments.
The ICJ’s decision is necessary because, under the Paris climate agreement, there is confusion about a country’s legal responsibilities regarding the causes of global warming. Supporters of the ICJ decision believe it could be a game changer for new policies and for tightening existing policies, shaping the discourse, empowering and emboldening civil society, creating a new political narrative, and impacting elections.
The resolution gained support from many countries because it was carefully crafted to avoid blaming countries such as the US and China that have contributed most to the warming gases driving up temperatures.
Vanuatu has had a bitter experience with the impacts of rising temperatures, with one cyclone alone destroying up to 64% of Vanuatu’s GDP.
Vanuatu sees the resolution as 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.