The U.N. General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution Wednesday that will ask the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the obligations of states under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations from the impact of climate change.
“This resolution and the advisory opinion it seeks will have a powerful and positive impact on how we address climate change and ultimately protect the present and future generations,” said Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau, whose government spearheaded the drafting and negotiations of the resolution, with a core group of 18 countries representing most corners of the world.
“Together we will send a loud and clear message, not only around the world but far into the future: On this very day, the peoples of the United Nations, acting through their governments, decided to leave aside differences and work together to tackle the defining challenge of our times: climate change,” Kalsakau said.
More than 130 countries joined in co-sponsoring the resolution, which was adopted by consensus. While most of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, including China and the United States, were noticeably absent from the co-sponsors, they did not prevent the adoption by consensus.
The United States, which noted the Biden administration’s ambitious climate action to meet commitments consistent with keeping global warming to within the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal, said it has “serious concerns” that an ICJ opinion could hurt rather than help collective efforts to reach climate targets.
“We believe that launching a judicial process, especially given the broad scope of the questions, will likely accentuate disagreements and not be conducive to advancing our ongoing diplomatic and other processes,” U.S. delegate Nicholas Hill told the assembly. “In light of this, the United States disagrees that this initiative is the best approach for achieving our shared goals and takes this opportunity to reaffirm our view that diplomatic efforts are the best means by which to address the climate crisis.”
Japan and Germany are among the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters, and they joined as co-sponsors. Germany was also among the 18 countries that shepherded the initiative.
“Germany hopes that this initiative will contribute to further strengthen international cooperation, which is key for achieving the Paris Agreement’s objectives,” Ambassador Antje Leendertse said of the 2015 climate accord.
The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu’s very existence is threatened by rising sea levels. It is currently recovering from the devastation earlier this month of two Category 4 tropical cyclones in less than five days.
Kalsakau was clear that the effort is not intended to be a contentious one, nor is it a lawsuit. The authors also do not expect the Hague-based court to create new obligations on states, only to uphold existing ones. While the ICJ is the United Nation’s principal judicial organ, its decisions are not binding but carry considerable weight and can become part of what’s known as customary law.
“We believe the clarity it will bring can greatly benefit our efforts to address the climate crisis and could further bolster global and multilateral cooperation and state conduct in addressing climate change,” the prime minister said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the action, warning time is running out for nations to act boldly to fight global warming.
“This is the critical decade for climate action,” he told the assembly. “It must happen on our watch.”
The resolution began in 2019 as the brainchild of students from Vanuatu, which is among several small island states that are suffering the effects of the climate crisis but has contributed little to causing it.
“I don’t want to show a picture to my child one day of my island. I want my child to be able to experience the same environment, the same culture I grew up in,” Cynthia Houniuhi, president of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, told reporters in a briefing ahead of the vote.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the resolution, saying it is a powerful demonstration of effective multilateral diplomacy led by a state from the Global South on behalf of people at risk.
“The overwhelming support for Vanuatu’s resolution is a major step toward gaining clarity on the legal obligations of states most responsible for climate change,” said HRW’s Environment and Human Rights director Richard Pearshouse. “It’s also important to focus — through the lens of human rights — on the obligations to protect those communities suffering most acutely.”