5 Years Since The Paris Accord, the Lives of Pacific Islanders Are Still on the Line. But We Have a Plan
The UN General Assembly must request an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice
By Caleb Pollard, President of the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change
The world has marked five years since the Paris Agreement, which was meant to mark a turning point for dealing with the existential crisis of climate change. But the lack of action from developed countries has meant that we are still on track for a rapidly warming earth.
Over the last decade, our world has seen greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and shatter records. Despite promises to come together to save the planet, developed countries continue to profit from digging up and burning coal, gas and oil, releasing gigatonnes of carbon pollution.
Most parts of these countries have not yet experienced the most direct consequences of climate change. We have. The billions of people living on the front line of the climate crisis, including the youth of the Pacific, the Carribean, of Latin America, Arctic, Asia, and Africa.
If global temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius in our lifetime, countries like mine, the Solomon Islands, will become inhabitable. We will be forced to leave our homes and relocate completely to survive. As our ancestral lands are inundated by the rising sea, so too is our heritage, our identity lost.
Here in the Pacific, we are already experiencing severe coastal erosion, extreme weather, coral bleaching and the loss of freshwater resources. In March of 2020, Cyclone Harold tore through the Pacific, following on from devastating cyclones in 2015, 2016 and 2018. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and dozens were killed across four countries. The climate crisis made Cyclone Harold more intense and more frequent, while the COVID-19 crisis made responding to it even harder. We cannot continue living like this.
At Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto, and later at Paris, we were promised action. Yet despite ever more opportunities to address this crisis, five years on since the Paris Agreement, the planet is hurtling towards climate catastrophe. Existing international agreements have not provided countries with legal clarity on their responsibilities to reduce emissions, leading to inaction.
We are tired of waiting for politicians and governments around the world to take meaningful action on climate. To break the impasse, we have a plan. We need to start treating climate change as a human rights issue.
Climate change is already affecting human rights, including our right to food, water, shelter, and security. The climate catastrophe has transcended beyond national borders and addressing it requires a human rights-based approach. Human rights law needs to be brought systematically to bear on the climate change responses. Human rights and climate are inextricably linked.
The UN General Assembly must therefore request an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice on climate change and human rights. All it would take is a simple majority vote from UN member states to refer the matter to the ICJ. An advisory opinion is not legally binding but carries great legal and moral authority, encouraging all nations to protect the human rights of people affected by climate change. An opinion from the highest court in the world would also help build a critical global coalition — uniting governments and international institutions. It would define exactly what existing bodies of laws nations should follow. In the past, advisory opinions have been instrumental in establishing international laws on the right to Self-Determination, the prevention of genocide, and nuclear disarmament. We believe it could do the same for climate change.
For this reason, the ICJAO would greatly assist our response to the single greatest challenge we are currently faced with by cementing consensus on the scientific evidence on climate change, providing impetus for more ambitious action under the Paris Agreement, provide authoritative baselines for state action, and provide the impetus and guidance for domestic, regional and international adjudications. But perhaps the most important outcome of the ICJAO would be that it would allow for the integration of international human rights law and international climate change law, which have been developing separately so far. This would in turn enhance the effectiveness of the international legal system in tackling climate change, for example by bolstering the authority of human rights bodies
The ICJAO has the potential to galvanize the uncommitted and unconvinced into a shared, just and truly global effort.
A human rights-based approach combined with the ability of an advisory opinion to catalyze greater action without naming and shaming is a great complement to the climate fight and also to the strengthening of the Paris Agreement. The same was reinforced by the Inter American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) when the Court made it clear that the right to a healthy environment is a fundamental human right; that degradation of the environment,including adverse impacts of climate change, affects the enjoyment of this fundamental human right and others. While such a position from the IACHR is welcome, there is a need for similar determinations across the globe in order to motivate action and the ICJAO will provide this same opportunity to courts globally to recognize and establish the obligations each state has in protecting the rights of its people now and in the future.
A planet in crisis doesn’t have to be our future. If there is power in the world to save humanity from environmental disaster — it is the power of the people. But time is running out and we have to act now. We’ve waited years for countries to show the leadership needed to avoid devastating climate change. Now let’s hear what courts have to say on climate change. Help the Pacific youth take climate change and human rights to the world’s highest court — the International Court of Justice.
The Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change is a youth led organization whose members are students from the Pacific Island countries. 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.