Small island nations are another step closer to holding the world’s big polluters to account for the harm they cause from their emissions.

Vanuatu made history last year when the UN General Assembly adopted the tiny island state’s proposal to have the International Court of Justice (ICJ) clarify countries’ legal obligations to protect people and the environment from the effects of climate change.

Submissions to the court close on Friday and Pacific academic Steven Ratuva said the court’s ruling could pressure governments to take bolder climate action.

A year ago, a pair of intense tropical cyclones struck Vanuatu within 48 hours of each other.

The country’s leaders blamed global warming and the devastation lent weight to their argument Western countries, whose pollution is intensifying extreme weather events and threatening their very existence, must be held to account.

“We have contributed the least to carbon pollution [and] continue to bear the greatest burden,” Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai said.

Just days after the cyclones left thousands displaced, Vanuatu won a major victory in March by persuading the UN General Assembly to request a ruling from the International Court of Justice on what countries’ legal responsibilites are to protect people and the environment from climate change.

“Friends, this is not just a Vanuatu problem,” the country’s Climate Change Minister Ralph Regenvanu told the UN General Assembly.

“What we are experiencing now and have faced for many years, the rest of the world is beginning to feel.

“We empathise with you and hope we have the collective courage to turn this canoe around.”

Now, submissions to the court are closing after the input of at least 12 regional Pacific groups.

Fijian academic Steven Ratuva said though the ICJ opinion is not legally binding, it has huge implications.

“The small island states in the Pacific would have a big legal stick to wield against the big powers and the big countries.”

Ratuva said the decision would also give small nations leverage to negotiate with polluting countries to change their behaviour and to demand more of what’s called “loss and damage” funds.

Last year, at COP28, countries agreed to set up a loss and damage fund to compensate developing countries for damage caused by climate change, in what was seen as a historic agreement.

The success so far of Vanuatu’s campaign is considered a measure of how much global urgency to address climate change has shifted in recent years.

A similar effort in 2011 by two other small island nations failed at the UN.

This time, Vanuatu is backed by more than 120 countries, including Germany, the UK, France and other industrialised nations with a long history of high emissions.

New Zealand also backs the campaign.

For Aotearoa’s Pacific neighbours, everything is at stake.

“The heating up of the ocean destroys the reef system, the biodiversity in small island states, water security, food security,” Ratuva said.

“It constitutes an existential threat.”

A ruling is expected early next year – one that could be a game changer for the smallest countries currently paying the biggest price of global warming.