The Pacific looms large in climate policy

| November 11, 2023

Although Pacific island countries contribute the least to global warming, they are at the frontline of climate change and live with the effects of it on a daily basis. The most substantial impacts of climate change include loss of coastal infrastructure and land, more intense cyclones and droughts, failure of subsistence crops and coastal fisheries, loss of coral reefs and mangroves, and the spread of diseases.

Given their experience with the effects of climate change, Pacific island countries have taken a lead role in the global fight against climate change. Their lead role becomes visible in different arenas and issues such as pushing the global agenda on the ocean and climate change nexus, climate justice, and framing climate change as a human rights issue.

A global agenda

The ocean covers three quarters of the earth’s surface and is one of the most important resources of our planet. It provides food and is a source of income for billions of people, including Pacific island countries who have some of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world.

The ocean plays a significant role in the global climate system, generating oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Climate change is leading to alterations in the oceans, including sea-level rise and ocean acidification, which puts marine ecosystems and coastal communities at risk. People need a healthy ocean to survive and there is no solution to global climate change without action on the world’s ocean.

As such, the ocean is now an integral part of climate change negotiations processes. The Ocean Pathway Partnership was launched during COP23 under Fiji’s presidency. Co-chaired by Fiji and Sweden, the Partnership aims to forge a stronger link between the ocean and climate. This is important as protecting the ocean is vital to achieving the 1.5-degree goal and the SDGs, a link that has long been overlooked.

Climate justice

Pacific island countries have also emphasised that climate change is a major human rights issue. For instance, the Marshall Islands, which is the smallest country ever to secure a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, is using the platform to fight for climate justice. The former president of the Marshall Islands explained the link between climate change and human rights as follows:

“The most vulnerable – atoll nations like my country – already face death row. Water covers much of our land at one or other point of the year as we fight rising tides. As we speak hundreds of people have evacuated their homes after large waves caused the Ocean to inundate parts of our capital, Majuro. It’s a fight to the death for anyone not prepared to flee. As a nation, we refuse to flee. But we also refuse to die.

So not to come forward with a new, improved NDC – with a stronger national effort – by next year. This is the same as a government deciding to pass sentence on our future. To force our country to die. That’s an injustice if only because we know these governments can act. We know it is not impossible… It’s quite the opposite. It’s why climate change is a major human rights issue…Climate is the most serious human rights issue we have ever faced.”

In addition to the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu is also taking a leading role in climate justice, pushing for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on human rights and the obligation of governments to protect people from climate change impacts.

Climate change as a human rights issue

#EndorseTheAO is a campaign led by the Pacific Islands Students Fighting for Climate Change. The campaign encourages state leaders to seek an Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on climate change and human rights. An Advisory Opinion has the potential to be a catalyst for climate change action while clarifying international law on climate change.

The role of the ICJ is to settle legal disputes submitted by states and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorised United Nations organs and specialised agencies. Individual countries cannot request an advisory opinion from the ICJ directly. The government of Vanuatu announced in 2021 that it would take the proposal for an Advisory Opinion on climate change and human rights to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2022. The UNGA adopted a resolution requesting an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the obligations of states with respect to climate change.

An Advisory Opinion from the ICJ is not binding. The UNGA is free to decide what effect to give to the Advisory Opinion. However, an Advisory Opinion from the ICJ carries great moral and legal authority. For instance, an Advisory Opinion could lead towards the integration of human rights law and climate law, provide guidelines for courts at all levels (which is important for climate litigation cases), promote ambitious action under the Paris Agreement, and would empower civil society organisations and climate activists to combat environmental injustices worldwide.

Pacific island countries have influenced international climate change policy by addressing the link between ocean and climate change, and taking the lead in declaring climate change as a major human rights issue. The Advisory Opinion from the ICJ has the potential to be a catalyst of change for climate change whilst clarifying international law on climate change.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.