Addressing Climate Change is Safeguarding Human Rights


Opinion by Bob Loughman Weibur, Vanuatu Prime Minister

Climate change represents the single greatest threat to Pacific Islanders and the Pacific way of life, now and increasingly into the future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) most recent report confirmed once again that the global climate has changed because of human-induced activities, and that those activities will lead to further changes—changes to temperature, rainfall patterns, ocean acidification and sea-level rise. These physical impacts affect our citizens’ lives in a multitude of ways. Our homes, livelihoods, health and well-being, culture, fundamental human rights and our very lives are being lost.

Vanuatu is not responsible for these impacts, contributing to less than 0.0018 percent of global emissions. But our islanders face some of the most devastating consequences. The massive gaps in climate action and support are shouldered by our farmers and fishers, our island women, men and young people, our most vulnerable.

The latest science also confirms we are far off track from meeting the Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In fact, emissions continue to rise, and annual emissions are higher now than ever. That puts our people, many of whom lack some of the most basic indicators of development, and rely directly on the environment to provide essential services like food, water, medicine and building materials, in extreme danger.

Climate change is already taking away our hard-won development gains and increasingly interferes with the enjoyment of our fundamental human rights, one storm, one drought, one flood and one king tide at a time. Rarely acknowledged, but equally devastating, is the slow and insidious impact of changing ocean chemistry, with acidification and bleaching now wiping out the coral reef systems our people rely on for food and livelihoods, and the daily eating away of our coastlines and infrastructure through sea level rise.

Vanuatu, along with the world’s most vulnerable nations, have articulated clearly that their pressing financial and technical needs to address these climate impacts, losses and damages are not being met by current climate financial mechanisms, nor by existing humanitarian response systems.

In Vanuatu’s newly revised and enhanced Nationally Determined Contribution to the Paris agreement, we set out the need for US$1.2 billion by 2030 to adequately meet our mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage commitments. This amount is insignificant when viewed in the context of the hundreds of trillions of dollars invested annually in expanding armies, combatting COVID-19 and the expansion of conflict-inducing fossil fuels.

New research from Oxfam showed that the money needed to respond to climate disasters has risen over 800 percent in the last two decades. More proof, if any were needed, confirming what our Pacific Islands have been experiencing, and suffering, for years: Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying.

As funding needs have increased, so too have funding shortfalls. Over the past five years, countries and communities hit by extreme weather received only around half of what they needed from developed countries to address the crises they experienced. This represents billions lost by our farmers and fishermen, themselves the victims of climate change, and translates to increased insecurity and inequality in countries that are already struggling.

Vanuatu knows this well. In 2015, we issued a UN flash appeal after being devastated by the Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Pam. The funds required in the immediate aftermath were estimated to be over US$37 million, but the appeal was only 58 percent covered. Cyclone Harold in 2020 wiped out more than 60 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in a matter of hours. Two years later, the combined humanitarian and recovery-related development assistance has still reached only a fraction of the losses and damages suffered by our island communities.

But we are under no illusion that this level of finance will come easily, as we continue to wait for wealthy countries to mobilize the long-promised US$100 billion to avert and minimise climate change, and noting that currently nothing is available under multilateral climate mechanisms to explicitly address actual loss and damage. As we saw during the COVID-19 response, the decision to mobilize finance at scale and speed is one of political will. Doing so for climate is an urgent matter of global cooperation and solidarity.

In the unanimously adopted Parliamentary Climate Emergency Declaration of 27 May, 2022, Vanuatu’s elected officials agreed that we are in danger now, and that climate change is existentially imperiling the people, societies and natural resources of the Republic of Vanuatu, as well as the fundamental human rights of present and future generations.

This is why Vanuatu is calling for the UN General Assembly to support a resolution toward a non-binding and non-contentious advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which we hope will foster ambition in the climate pledges made by states, crucial for the success of the Paris agreement. An advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice will strengthen national ambition toward the goals of the UN Climate Change Convention and Paris agreement, via placing human rights obligations at the center of nationally determined contributions and climate change negotiations.

An advisory opinion on climate change would clarify and develop the international legal principles related to climate change and advance useful benchmarks. This clarification of international law would help accelerate state action toward effective and equitable solutions to climate change. It would therefore enable states to share the burdens and benefits of climate change and its resolution equitably and fairly, and equally safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable.

ICJ advisory opinions hold tremendous moral authority to influence climate ambition from governments, businesses and other non-state actors. We hope an ICJ climate advisory opinion will clarify the obligations of states to protect human rights and the environment from climate change. Not only for Vanuatu, but for all of the 3.6 billion people on this planet that the IPCC warned live in areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change.

The climate crisis is a human rights crisis.

Now is the moment for the international community to stand in solidarity and decisively act to protect the human rights of people in all nations, rich and poor, north and south, who are suffering the unjust impacts of fossil fuel-driven climate change.

Vanuatu calls on you, wherever you are in the world, to demand that people and the environment sit at the center of development decision making, and that your elected officials and representatives commit to keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground, mobilising the finance necessary to address loss and damage and protecting human rights in the face of the climate crisis.