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The scale is a bold symbol to express a complex necessity:

The unequal burdens and responsibilities of climate change

must be decisively addressed by law. It will be a data tool to visualise and calculate degrees of climate inequality.

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a time for  action 

In the coming weeks the 193 member states of the United Nations will vote on whether the world's highest court should issue a legal statement on climate change. Such a legal statement, a so-called “advisory opinion”, could initiate a global turning point in the fight for climate justice. Learn how you can contribute to this historic cause and get those in power to finally take action.

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a path towards

 climate justice 

 1. THE CLIMATE CRISIS AND INJUSTICE 

> What makes climate change a matter of seeking justice?

For 250 years human activities have been heating up our planet, causing an unprecedented global catastrophe. Those who are most vulnerable and least responsible for the crisis have been affected most acutely. As a result climate change has dramatically increased pre-existing inequities all around the globe [1]. 

 

This is particularly evident when looking at small island developing states like Vanuatu. Due to its location in the South Pacific Ocean, and its high exposure to tropical storms, Vanuatu counts as one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries [2] – while contributing less than 0.0005% to annual global CO2 emissions [3]. 

 CLIMATE CHANGE VULNERABILITY 
lower                                          higher
Source: ND-GAIN Country Index

If the world fails to limit global warming and to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the increasing intensity of tropical storms and flooding, combined with sea level rise, saltwater intrusion and ocean acidification, will cause unbearable loss and damage to countries like Vanuatu [4].

 

Due to decades of inaction many Pacific Islands could already be rendered uninhabitable by 2050, potentially resulting in the displacement of entire states [5]. So far, the international community has not responded appropriately [6].

 Cyclone Harold crossing Vanuatu in 2020, causing  damage equivalent to 61% of the countries GDP

 2. LOCAL ACTIVISTS TAKING LEGAL ACTION 

> How South Pacific law students are fighting back

To protect their homelands and cultures, and to fight for the rights of both present and future generations, the student initiative PISFCC (Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change) is campaigning to bring the world’s biggest problem to the world’s highest court [7]: the International Court of Justice (or simply World Court) [8].

What started as an initiative of 27 law students has evolved into an alliance of more than 1500 civil society organizations from all around the world, accompanied by the PISFCC's global partner organization: the WYCJ (World’s Youth For Climate Justice) [9].

 

After three years of campaigning the movement is now close to reaching its core goal: a legal statement or "advisory opinion" by the World Court clarifying the obligations of states to act on climate change.

The PISFCC campaigning in New York City during the UN General Assembly

... we choose to use our passion

and knowledge to fight against

climate change at every level – from

the grassroots of our communities

to the highest levels of national

and international government.

 - PISFCC 

 3. THE POWER OF INTERNATIONAL LAW 

> What is an advisory opinion by the World Court?

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The World Court is the highest court in the international legal system and the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. Simply put, it is responsible for resolving international legal disputes brought to it by states and providing advisory opinions on legal issues, both in accordance with international law.

Advisory opinions are the World Court’s responses to legal questions that can only be asked by UN organs like the UN General Assembly (UNGA), specialized agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and related global organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) [10]. 

 

Despite having no binding force, advisory opinions carry great legal and political weight and global moral authority [11]. They are instruments for international peacekeeping, shape the clarification and development of international law and therefore have far-reaching influence on international procedures. 

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The International Court of Justice or World Court in The Hague, Netherlands

 4. GETTING TO THE WORLD COURT! 

> How to achieve an advisory opinion on climate change

1

2

3

 STEP 1: THE GOVERNMENT OF VANUATU 

To make an advisory opinion by the World Court possible, the PISFCC initiative first needed to be adopted as a policy by the government of Vanuatu [12]. After much campaigning this was formalized in 2021. Since then, Vanuatu has been working on a resolution that defines its legal question for the World Court. This resolution will soon be brought to the UN General Assembly.

 

 STEP 2: THE UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY 

Around early 2023 all 193 UN member states will be asked to vote on whether the World Court should issue an advisory opinion on the legal question proposed by Vanuatu. If a simple majority (more than 50% of the states present) support the resolution, the World Court will be mandated to act. More than 80 states, including Germany, have already expressed their intention to do so.

 

 STEP 3: THE WORLD COURT 

Following a simple majority vote and the official request by the UN General Assembly, the World Court would begin its work on the advisory opinion.

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 5. A GLOBAL TURNING POINT? 

> How an advisory opinion could serve climate justice

In the recently published draft resolution, Vanuatu formulates its legal question to the World Court as follows: “What are the obligations of States under [...] international law to ensure the protection of the climate system [...] for present and future generations?” [13]

 

This question demands that the World Court evaluates all relevant applicable treaties and the rules of general international law. This includes, among many others, the Charter of the UN [14], the Paris Agreement [15] and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [16]. 

 

Regardless of the exact outcome, an advisory opinion on climate change would provide an authoritative legal statement with global impact. It would clarify obligations under international law and thus guide states in their climate actions. It would influence global citizens’ opinions about the issues at stake and offer strong legal arguments, benefiting  a broad range of actors and their causes.

At best, a decisive and progressive advisory opinion by the World Court would say that:​ 

 

States are obliged to ensure that temperatures do not rise above 1.5°C. States are obliged to ensure adequate resources for adaptation for life in a 1.5°C world. States are obliged to compensate the losses and damages to those adversely affected by life in a 1.5°C world. States are obliged to comply with human rights obligations in their climate actions.

Such an advisory opinion would ...

Argue that policies not aligned with 1.5°C may be

considered unlawful behavior under international law.

Fill the gaps in the Paris Agreement by clarifying the limits of greenhouse gas emissions.

Fill the gaps in the Paris Agreement  by clarifying the obligations to provide adequate reparations for the loss and damage of the most vulnerable.

Provide strong legal arguments so that states, organizations and individuals can effectively sue states and businesses whose climate policies are insufficient.

Strengthen climate litigation of all kinds because courts worldwide will be persuaded to respect and follow the advisory opinion’s reasoning.

Act
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what can  I do? 

A World Court advisory opinion on climate change could spark real systemic change. But since a decisive and progressive advisory opinion is not yet likely to happen, we have to apply pressure. Clear demands from the international community will play a crucial role in forcing action.

In the lead up to the UN General Assembly vote, we ask you to follow us and our partners on social media, to engage and share our contents and to spread the word wherever possible. With your help, we can build the widespread attention this historic cause deserves. 

SOURCES:

 

[1] N. McGill, “Mapping human vulnerability to climate change,” Newsroom, Mar. 03, 2011. https://www.mcgill.ca/newsroom/channels/news/mapping-human-vulnerability-climate-change-172326 (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[2] C. Chen, I. Noble, J. Hellmann, J. Coffee, M. Murillo, and N. Chawla, “University of Notre Dame global adaptation index,” Univ. Notre Dame Notre Dame USA, 2015.

[3] H. Ritchie, M. Roser, and P. Rosado, “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Our World Data, 2020.

[4] N. Bloemendaal et al., “A globally consistent local-scale assessment of future tropical cyclone risk,” Sci. Adv., vol. 8, no. 17, p. eabm8438, 2022.

[5] C. D. Storlazzi et al., “Most atolls will be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century because of sea-level rise exacerbating wave-driven flooding,” Sci. Adv., vol. 4, no. 4, p. eaap9741, Apr. 2018, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aap9741.

[6] Climate Action Tracker, “2100 Warming Projections: Emissions and expected warming based on pledges and current policies.,” 2022. https://climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/ (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[7] PISFCC, “PISFCC auf Instagram: ‘We’re taking the world’s biggest problem to the world’s highest court. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/p/Cib4GNuB4Nf/ (accessed Nov. 09, 2022).

[8] International Court of Justice, “Home | International Court of Justice.” https://www.icj-cij.org/en (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[9] WYCJ, “World’s Youth for Climate Justice,” World’s Youth for Climate Justice. https://www.wy4cj.org (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[10] International Court of Justice, “Organs and agencies authorized to request advisory opinions | International Court of Justice.” https://www.icj-cij.org/en/organs-agencies-authorized (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[11] International Court of Justice, “Advisory Jurisdiction | International Court of Justice.” https://www.icj-cij.org/en/advisory-jurisdiction (accessed Nov. 18, 2022).

[12] VanuatuICJ, “Vanuatu ICJ Initiative.” https://www.vanuatuicj.com/home (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[13] VanuatuICJ, “Vanuatu ICJ Initiative - Resolution.” https://www.vanuatuicj.com/resolution (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[14] United Nations, “United Nations Charter (full text),” United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/un-charter/full-text (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[15] United Nations, “The Paris Agreement | UNFCCC.” https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

[16] O. United Nations, “OHCHR | Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/en/universal-declaration-of-human-rights (accessed Dec. 09, 2022).

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