UN Calls on International Court of Justice (ICJ) to Issue Critical Guidance on Climate Change in International Law

Published Mar 29, 2023

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The UN General Assembly today asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the world’s highest court, to issue an advisory opinion that will help clarify states’ obligations and help ensure that states—and the institutions under their jurisdiction—can be held accountable for their actions contributing to climate change under international law. With over 130 countries co-sponsoring, the UN voted to pass the resolution which will help provide fundamental human rights protections for present and future generations.

In every region of the world, civilians suffer the effects of loss of human life, rising poverty, and hunger due to the impacts of climate change. But those impacts are not equally spread. For example, new research showed the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) are projected to experience sea level rise impacts from Antarctica up to 34% higher than the global average. Yet those same countries have contributed almost no heat-trapping emissions to the environment. This research shows that sea level rise impacts raise questions about sovereignty and displacement, underscoring issues of climate injustice. The ICJ advisory opinion will help answer these questions and point the path forward for an equitable transition to a safer and healthier future for all.

Below is a statement by Dr. Delta Merner, lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

“Today is a historic moment for international climate justice. After years of multinational collaboration and hard work led by the Government of Vanuatu, the UN today moved to recognize climate change for what it is—a universal threat to present and future generations. Formal guidance from the World Court could help modernize the fight for climate justice to protect the vulnerable and take intergenerational equity into consideration.

“While the progress is hopeful, it is very disappointing that the United States failed to throw its full support behind this resolution. Instead of undermining these efforts, the United States should be an ally to small island states—who also led the fight for the 1.5°C goal in the Paris Agreement—in the global fight for climate justice. The ICJ’s advisory opinion would help motivate nations to increase their climate ambitions to align as closely as possible to global temperature targets. In addition, the opinion would offer greater clarity on how climate change is treated under existing international law.

“The ICJ’s ruling will have far-reaching impacts on how communities across the world are able to fight for climate justice, including reinforcing the underlying legal rationale for thousands of climate litigation cases currently filed in local, state, national, and international courts. The effort also directly complements important progress made last year at COP27 to secure a loss and damage fund for low-income countries bearing the brunt of climate impacts caused primarily by the emissions of richer nations like the United States.”