With most of its 82 islands sitting just less than one metre above sea level, the low-lying Pacific nation of Vanuatu faces high risk of becoming inundated by the world’s rising seas if drastic measures are not taken to limit global warming.
The island archipelago has therefore announced that it is considering suing fossil fuel companies for their role in driving climate change, as global courtrooms turn into new battlegrounds for climate action.
Speaking via a video statement on the Climate Vulnerable Forum’s Virtual Summit on Thursday, Vanuatu’s minister of foreign affairs Ralph Regenvanu revealed that the country was exploring ways to take legal action against the “fossil fuel companies, the financial institutions and the governments that actively and knowingly” contribute to the climate crisis and the severe threats faced by Vanuatu as the world struggles to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees celcius.
“I am therefore today putting the fossil fuel industry, and the states that sponsor it, on notice that the climate loss and the damages ravaging Vanuatu will not go unchallenged,” said Regenvanu.
The declaration is the latest move from small island nations that have long sought reparations for damages linked to climate change, and the first time a climate-vulnerable country will legally hold to account those most responsible for global carbon emissions. Vanuatu’s decision joins a growing list of climate lawsuits raised over recent years from individuals and groups against oil, gas and coal companies and the governments that continue to back the fossil fuel industry.
“Vanuatu has become a poster child for the horrible impacts of climate change and companies should confront the request by its government to address these issues,” said Jolene Lin, an associate professor specialising in transnational environmental law and climate change at the National University of Singapore (NUS). “It would be very stupid to play hard ball because it doesn’t make good business sense.”
Taking fossil fuels to court
This is not the first time Vanuatu has attempted to seek legal redress from the world’s major polluters. Along with five other island countries, including Fiji and the Philippines, the country released the People’s Declaration for Climate Justice at its capital, Port Vila, in 2015.
“The Pacific islands have a very high profile in the conversation on climate adaptation and making sure that the world does not forget that climate change is an existential threat.”
Jolene Lin, associate professor, National University of Singapore
“As the people most acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, we will not let the big polluters decide and assign our fate,” the statement read. “We refuse to accept the ‘new normal’ and demand for climate justice by holding the big polluters and their respective governments to account for their contribution to the climate crisis.”
The recent announcement by Vanuatu also follows a London hearing held by the Philippines Commission on Human Rights last week to determine whether 47 global cement, coal, oil and gas companies—including Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and Arch Coal—bear heavy responsibility for climate change and have therefore violated the human rights of Filipino citizens whose lives have been devastatingly affected by recent extreme weather events.
Based on the Carbon Majors petition that first made rounds in 2015, the investigation is one of the rare instances that have seriously examined the inaction on climate change as a violation of human rights.
In February, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights published an advisory opinion linking environment protection to human rights, urging states to take measures to prevent environmental harm to individuals both inside and outside their territory.
According to the court, “if pollution can travel across the border, so can legal responsibility.”
And it looks like civil society has taken note, judging from the global upsurge of climate litigations by individuals and groups more eager than ever to force fossil fuel corporations to clean up their act and for governments to toughen their fight against climate change.
Calling Vanuatu’s announcement a powerful signal to fossil fuel firms that will shape the conversation on climate change, Lin also pointed to the Philippines trial as an influential development that could help support other climate litigation cases. Although the commission’s powers are limited to making recommendations to the companies found guilty of breaching environmental laws, she said that findings from the Vanuatu case could endorse findings from other courts and also serve as compelling evidence for future trials.
Survival of small island nations in jeopardy
“The injustice of climate change is that the impacts are felt first and hardest by those with the least responsibility for its causes,” Regenvanu said in his statement, highlighting that while his country stands on the “front line of climate change” the benefits reaped from the global exploitation of fossil fuels have not trickled down to his small island state.
Located on what is called the Ring of Fire—a horseshoe-shaped belt of volcanoes and seismic sites in the Pacific region—Vanuatu is prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, cyclones, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. Its population is the most exposed in the world to natural disasters, with the UN calling the Torres Islands inhabitants who had been displaced by rising sea water in the early 2000s as the world’s first climate refugees.
The archipelago has also been hit by at least 20 cyclones in the past 25 years, with Cyclone Pam in 2015 being the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the South Pacific region and one of the worst natural disasters in the history of Vanuatu.
The former president of Vanuatu, the late Baldwin Lonsdale had back then directly attributed the catastrophic event to climate change and called for global leaders to act toughly on cutting carbon emissions. The then-president of Kiribati—another Pacific island nation—Anote Tong had also agreed and said low-lying states faced greater climate hazards and called climate change a catastrophe that directly threatens their survival.
In the recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that rang a resounding alarm on climate change, Kiribati was identified as one of the small-island developing states disproportionately at risk to the consequences of global warming, along with Tuvalu, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands.
“The Pacific islands have a very high profile in the conversation on climate adaptation and making sure that the world does not forget that climate change is an existential threat,” said Lin, adding that this gave the islands a lot of moral authority on the issue.
She said: “Till now, the pacific islands have been seen as victims but now the victims are trying to stand up for themselves and that is a very powerful message.”
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