3 Recent Diplomatic Wins for Climate Justice — and What Comes Next

A blue sea star perches on a largely dead reef on Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu. The damage to the reef is likely caused by prolonged water temperatures, storm surges and fertilizer input and overfishing. PHOTO: Tom Vierus / Climate Visuals

Time is running out to stop the worst consequences of climate change. But even as the doomsday clock ticks, growing solidarity among UN Member States is delivering hopeful signs of progress on climate action, climate justice, and climate finance.

1. The Vanuatu Resolution: Taking One of the World’s Biggest Problems to The World’s Highest Court

The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu scored a major diplomatic win last month when the United Nations adopted a resolution it brought forward to determine whether countries can face legal consequences for contributing to the global climate crisis.

The Vanuatu Resolution asks the International Court of Justice — the UN’s judicial arm — to weigh in on what happens when national governments fail to carry out commitments made in such treaties as the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

Securing such global consensus is a huge geopolitical feat for any country, especially for one with so much riding on the outcome. In Vanuatu, natural disasters have become a near-constant threat. Just last month, the country experienced an earthquake and two major hurricanes — all in the span of 48 hours. Meanwhile, sea-level rise has already forced the relocation of villages on four of its 83 islands. And its most valuable commodity — albacore, bigeye, and skipjack tuna — are swimming farther from territorial waters as ocean temperatures rise.

On March 3, Tropical Cyclone Kevin landed in Vanuatu, affecting the entire country just hours after Tropical Cyclone Judy made landfall, causing more damage to buildings, power lines, and infrastructure in areas around the country. PHOTO: Rebecca Olul / UNICEF

The Vanuatu Resolution also represents a watershed moment for youth climate activists in the Pacific. In fact, the movement to bring one of the world’s biggest problems before the world’s highest court began in a classroom of young law students in Fiji. They would go on to launch the Pacific Island Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), which played a key role in the resolution’s passing.

“We are just ecstatic that the world has listened to the Pacific youth,” the group’s president Cynthia Houniuhi told The Guardian after the vote. “We have contributed the least to the global emissions that are drowning our land.”

In the coming months, the International Court of Justice, based in the Hague, will hear evidence from scientists, activists, and experts. While the court’s opinion is not legally binding, it could help shape the legal landscape when it comes to the impact of climate change on human rights and the rights of future generations.

The Sea-Link Rigger hauls a load of crushed metal on its way to a scrap metal yard in Washington state, USA. Improper disposal causes scrap metal to accumulate in landfills, pollutes the air and hinders ocean life from thriving. PHOTO: Ingrid V Taylar

2. The High Seas Treaty: Protecting Our Shared Ocean

Two-thirds of the world’s ocean are considered international waters, but just 1% of these “high seas” are protected. Now, thanks to a new landmark treaty, we have a chance to change that.

After almost 20 years of negotiation, world leaders reached a groundbreaking consensus last month to safeguard global marine biodiversity by establishing new protected areas in international waters. The agreement, known as the High Seas Treaty, signals a huge step forward in protecting the ocean from the compounding threats of climate change, overfishing, industrial pollution, and shipping traffic. It is the first international accord of its kind since 1982.

“The High Seas Treaty is one of the most ambitious and complex treaties managing the global commons of the seas on both a technical and political level,” says Kerrlene Wills, the UN Foundation’s Director for Ocean and Climate.

The deal will provide a way for countries to deliver on promises made at last year’s UN biodiversity Climate Change Conference (COP), when countries pledged to protect 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030.

Now, the question is what exactly needs to happen to turn this treaty into reality. The most immediate challenge, says Wills, is to gain the support of at least 60 UN Member States for ratification. The longer-term challenge will be funding conservation efforts, particularly among small island nations that will require more resources.

At COP27, global leaders agreed to establish a “loss and damage” fund, paid for by wealthy countries, to support the low-income countries in the Global South that are most vulnerable to climate crises and disasters. PHOTO: Mídia Ninja

3. Loss and Damage Fund: Supporting The Hardest-Hit and Most Vulnerable Communities

One of the cruelest ironies of climate change is that countries most devastated by its consequences are often the least responsible and least equipped to respond. For island nations like Vanuatu, the issue of climate finance could ultimately determine their fate. That’s why getting countries to agree to create the planet’s first loss and damage fund to support low-income nations affected by climate change proved to be such a milestone moment for last year’s COP27.

Last month, a UN committee made up of representatives from 24 countries — including Barbados, the Dominican Republic, the Maldives and other small island states — held its first meeting to move forward with the fund’s launch. Though world leaders have yet to agree on how money will be raised and dispersed, a climate negotiator from Egypt told reporters it should be in place later this year.

“The agreements made at COP27 are a win for our entire world,” said Sherry Rehman, the Climate Change Minister of Pakistan, where unprecedented flooding last year submerged one-third of the country. “This is not about accepting charity. This is a down payment on investment in our futures and in climate justice.”

Saint-Louis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the northwest coast of Senegal, is vulnerable to climate change. Sea level rise is expected to threaten the city center and potentially damage historic parts of the city. PHOTO: ibrahima Ba Sané / World Bank

What Comes Next

Climate change is an existential crisis — and not just for island nations. No place on Earth will remain untouched by its havoc.

But as a result of location, or landscape, or both, some countries are already facing the consequences. For these more vulnerable communities, the danger of climate change is far more immediate and profound.

“Our islands stand to be wiped off the face of the planet,” says Marsha Caddle, the former Minister of Economic Affairs and Investment of Barbados who led its delegation to COP26 in Glasgow. “Millions of people stand to be homeless, nationless.”

An expert on climate finance and just transition, she says the UN’s latest decision to bring the issue of climate action before the world’s highest court “expands the climate crisis issue beyond being one of science where it started to one of global finance and economy, to which it has recently evolved, and ultimately, now, to one of justice, which is where it properly sits.”

These recent diplomatic wins are badly needed, especially in light of the of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s newest report, which confirms that the atmosphere will surpass the 1.5 C warming threshold within the next decade unless we take immediate action. According to the latest climate science, the window to repair the damage caused by centuries of pollution, waste, and misuse of our natural resources is rapidly closing.

“It has been said that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres told world leaders at the UN General Assembly after the Vanuatu Resolution had passed. “Now is the time for climate action and climate justice…We have never been better equipped to solve the climate crisis. Let’s work together to get the job done.”

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