Vanuatu, a set of South Pacific islands, is not what you would call a prominent international player. The small country of a little over 300,000 people has nevertheless made history, according to UN News. It presented a resolution to the UN General Assembly asking the UN’s International Court of Justice to make a ruling on countries’ responsibilities to fight climate change.
Vanuatu lies due east of Australia’s Queensland. It is a nine hour flight from Canberra. The people there speak 112 different languages, but also know a pidgin that is 90% English, and many know either English or French. The British and French Empires jointly administered it in the colonial age. It was mentioned by Scottish writer and traveler Robert Louis Stephenson.
But what is most important about it nowadays is that it is one of the world’s primary victims of the climate emergency. Its seas are rising, with the danger that these islands will eventually be under water. And the upper levels of the Pacific are warming up, which makes cyclones more intense.
The weather site The Watchers explained on March 14, just a couple of weeks ago,
- “The passage of tropical cyclones Judy and Kevin over central-southern Vanuatu from February 28 to March 3, 2023, has caused widespread damage and devastation. According to the UN OCHA, 251 346 people, which is around 80% of the total population, have been affected by cyclones.
The aftermath of the cyclones has left 5 156 people still evacuated and seeking refuge in 106 evacuation centers located in the Shefa and Tafea Provinces. The damage caused by the cyclones has also resulted in 28 schools being damaged and made inaccessible, hampering educational opportunities for children in affected areas.”
And that was the second time in just a few months that the islands were hit by monster storms.
Then there are the rising seas, which threaten homes along the coasts. Cemeteries are going under water and bones are resurfacing. They are pleading with the government to build sea walls. The inexorably rising seas, however, may not be stopped by this expedient, and whole towns may have to pick up and move inland. People burning gasoline, coal and fossil gas puts the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which keeps the sun’s heat on earth and heats it up, causing the ice sheets at the poles to melt, which causes the seas to rise.
Vanuatu wants rich countries to establish a climate fund to help its people remain resilient in the face of these threats, but most countries are declining to sign on. So Vanuatu got a hearing at the UNGA, which was not assured, and over 130 countries voted for its resolution. The US and China, major carbon polluters, abstained, which allowed the resolution to be adopted by consensus.
The ruling of the International Court of Justice is not binding and there are no police who will impose it. It will have, however, enormous moral authority and can be cited in judicial proceedings, so it will be consequential.
The resolution notes the recent IPCC report affirming that an exhaustive review of the scientific literature demonstrates that almost all heating of the earth in the past two centuries has been caused by humanity burning fossil fuels.
The resolution asks the court to rule on these questions:
- “Having particular regard to the Charter of the United Nations, the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the duty of due diligence, the rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle of prevention of significant harm to the environment, and the duty to protect and preserve the marine environment,
(1) What are the obligations of States under international law to ensure the protection of the climate system and other parts of the environment from anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases for States and for present and future generations;
(2) What are the legal consequences under these obligations for States where they, by their acts and omissions, have caused significant harm to the climate system and other parts of the environment, with respect to:
(a) States, including, in particular, small island developing States, which due to their geographical circumstances and level of development, are injured or specially affected by or are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change?
(b) Peoples and individuals of the present and future generations affected by the adverse effects of climate change?”
So tiny Vanuatu is like Archimedes with a long enough lever and a fulcrum, to move the whole earth. That lever is the anxiety all clear-sighted people have about the world that the climate emergency is making.
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