Last year, several small island states called on the U.N. General Assembly to request an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the responsibilities of nations whose emissions of greenhouse gases within their jurisdictions contribute to serious harms in other countries. Sensing that endless political negotiations have resulted in little progress internationally, the islands sought to show that the climate change problem is one of law and justice, rather than merely politics and power.
At Yale, students are studying this campaign as part of a project on climate change and the international rule of law. Through this initiative, we have heard firsthand from island representatives who face the enormous challenge of working with powerful nations that seem not to care that their homelands, their ways of life, and their very existence are in peril. At bottom, the islanders’ struggle is for climate justice and like earlier civil rights movements they may be forced to turn to the courts for help in prodding along recalcitrant political interests.
All nations should support a campaign to bring the rule of law to the climate change problem. Though any opinion obtained from the International Court of Justice would be non-binding, it may begin a process whereby reducing the threat of climate change comes to be seen as a legal responsibility of nations, rather than an act of charity toward weak and distant neighbors. It may bring the order and principle to a matter affecting the very fate of our planet.
The sooner this transformation happens the better. Small low-lying island nations are the first and most obvious to experience significant impacts from climate change, but we delude ourselves when we think that they are alone or that the threat for us lies far in the future.
For more on this story, visit: Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy – News.