Pacific Leaders Urge Re-Focus on Climate Emergency
Image: Ankor Light/Shutterstock
At the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022, the leaders of the small island – or ‘big ocean’ – countries in the Pacific called for a re-focus on the global climate emergency. Using their moral authority, which is grounded in the fact that their countries are the ones most affected by this emergency while contributing hardly anything to its causes, Pacific leaders demanded more decisive climate action and put forward new proposals and initiatives.
During the high-level week of the 77th session (from 20 to 23 September), 12 heads of state or government from Pacific Island Countries (PICs) took the floor at the General Assembly, and they all made the climate emergency their countries are facing a top priority. The first was David Kabua, the president of the Marshall Islands who made the point that for PICs “the greatest challenge and threat is climate change”, referring to the Pacific Islands Forum’s declaration from July of this year that “climate change remains the single greatest existential threat facing the Blue Pacific.” Other PIC leaders reiterated this position and pleaded with the major developed countries, in particular the US and China, to put their differences aside and join forces to address the climate emergency, which, as Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape demanded, “should be at the top of humanity’s priorities.”
Three major initiatives announced by PICs leaders in New York last week stand out: an initiative to get an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the human rights impacts of climate change, a push for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty, and the ‘Rising Nations Initiative’, a plan to preserve the heritage of PICs.
Leading on the first two initiatives is the small Pacific island state of Vanuatu. In its address to the UN General Assembly on 23 September, Vanuatu’s President Nikenike Vurobaravu introduced the initiative to bring climate change to the ICJ by stating that “fundamental human rights are being violated, as we begin measuring climate change not in degrees of Celsius or tons of carbon, but in human lives. The time is up – Action is required now.” The plan is to “ask the ICJ for an Advisory Opinion on existing obligations, under international law, to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse impacts of climate change.” The idea for pursuing this judicial route was developed by environmental law students at Vanuatu’s University of the South Pacific campus after two category 5 cyclones (cyclones Pam and Harold) hit Vanuatu within five years. The students approached their foreign ministry, and in September 2021 the Vanuatu government decided to campaign for an ICJ Advisory Opinion. Over the last year, Vanuatu has spearheaded such a campaign, and it received growing support from civil society in the Pacific and beyond, and from other UN member states. In March 2022, the heads of government of the Caribbean Community endorsed the idea, and in July the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) followed. By September more than 80 states had pledged their support. For the ICJ to issue an Advisory Opinion, a majority of UN member states would need to approve the bid (at least 97 out of 193 member countries).
Vurobaravu and the supporters of the initiative “believe that legal clarity from the World’s Highest Court will help to spur even greater climate action and strengthen the Paris Agreement” , at the same time acknowledging that “taking climate change to the ICJ via the General Assembly, is not a silver bullet for increasing climate action, but only one tool to get us closer to the end goal of a safe planet for humanity.”
Another tool, in the eyes of Vanuatu’s President, could be a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. In his speech, Vurobaravu called for the development of such a treaty “to phase down coal, oil and gas production in line with 1.5 C, and enable a global just transition for every worker, community and nation with fossil fuel dependence.” The initiative for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty is carried by an international civil society campaign. It is expected that Vanuatu’s proposal at the UN General Assembly will start discussions around the issue at the international diplomatic level. The call for such a treaty has already been endorsed by more than 65 cities and local-level governance institutions globally, including London, Paris and Los Angeles, and recently the proposal has also been supported by the Vatican and the WHO.
While the treaty campaign is in its early stages, Vanuatu is confident about reaching the required number of members states for a positive vote on an ICJ climate change resolution at the General Assembly. The plan is to have the resolution introduced at the end of October, with a vote later in the year, or in early 2023.
Finally, the leaders of Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands (Prime Minister Kausea Natano and President David Kabua) launched the ‘Rising Nations Initiative’ on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on 21 September. The aim is to establish a global partnership for the preservation of the sovereignty, heritage and rights of Pacific atoll island nations whose very existence is threatened by the effects of climate change. Among the most pressing issues are the establishment of a living repository of the culture and heritage of Pacific atoll countries, their designation as UNESCO World Heritage, and a programme for building and financing adaptation and resilience projects in support of local atoll communities. At the same time, Natano and Kabua demanded more decisive mitigation measures from developed countries which are the main emitters of greenhouse gases.
The PICs have a staunch supporter in the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. In his opening remarks to the General Assembly, Guterres demanded that the developed states of the Global North tax windfall profits of fossil fuel companies and redirect those funds to the people worldwide who are struggling with the rising costs of living (in particular food and energy costs) and to the “countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis.” This definitely includes the PICs. When meeting with PIF leaders on 23 September on the sidelines of the General Assembly, Guterres assured them of his full support, saying that “those who did nothing to create this crisis are paying the highest price” and that he is sharing PICs leaders’ concerns “that we are off track from the goals of the Paris Agreement.” He demanded “phasing out of fossil fuels” and “scaling up finance for the burning issue of loss and damage, which is happening now.” The joint press release on their meeting demonstrates that PIF leaders and the UN Secretary-General are on the same page when it comes to addressing the climate emergency.
PICs do not have much power in world politics. Their options to influence policies at the global level are limited. Hence it is all the more admirable how they make use of their membership in the United Nations to draw attention to their climate emergency-related plight. They have made smart use of the UN stage again last week. With their interventions at the General Assembly, Pacific leaders have made it clear what they expect from COP27 in Egypt later this year. They have set the scene for hard debates and have made it clear once more that they will not drown, but fight.
Volker Boege is Toda Peace Institute's Senior Research Fellow for Climate Change and Conflict. Dr. Boege has worked extensively in the areas of peacebuilding and resilience in the Pacific region. He works on post-conflict peacebuilding, hybrid political orders and state formation, non-Western approaches to conflict transformation, environmental degradation and conflict, with a regional focus on Oceania.