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The U.N. Just Gave a Big Boost to Climate Justice

The U.N. adopted a landmark resolution asking the world’s top court to outline countries’ climate obligations. It’s a big win for climate justice, so what will it do?

The Fiji chapter of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change.

Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change

The U.N. General Assembly in New York adopted a consensus resolution in late March asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion outlining whether countries have an obligation to protect the global climate system, and, if they do, what legal consequences there could be for failing to meet the obligations.

So, what is an ICJ advisory opinion? And what effect will it have? Let’s dive in.

Some background: 

Our story starts in 2019, when around two dozen law students from the University of the South Pacific formed Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, an alliance of youth-led organizations from each Pacific Island country with the mission to protect their islands from the harms of climate change (in case the name wasn’t clear enough).

  • The students worked with the government of Vanuatu, a nation made up of around 80 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean, to launch a campaign advocating for a General Assembly resolution on climate change and human rights, ultimately getting 120 countries on board as co-sponsors and some 1,700 civil organizations from 130 countries to endorse the proposal.

The resolution’s adoption is being described as a “turning point in climate justice,” and marks the first time that the world’s highest court will weigh in on countries’ climate obligations in the context of protecting human rights.

What is the ICJ?

The International Court of Justice (a.k.a., the “World Court”) is part of the U.N. system. It’s the sole international court handling general disputes between member states (i.e., countries) and its opinions often serve as the basis for international law (more appropriately called “public international law”).

The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands


The court is seated at the Peace Palace (pictured above) in The Hague, Netherlands, making it the only U.N. principal organ not seated in New York. It’s often confused with the International Criminal Court (ICC), also located in The Hague, about 10 minutes away.

I visited the ICJ in September 2017 as part of a European legal tour while studying abroad during law school (sorry, that sentence is equal parts truth and humble brag). We also visited the ICC, the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Justice of the E.U., and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (only a few months before it dissolved).

Here’s a picture I took when we arrived at the Peace Palace:

My law school friends standing in front of The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands.

The Bagel

Shoutout to my law school friends (from left to right) Woody, Anthony, Morganne, Emma, Marissa, and Aaron.

The palace really is an awe-inspiring place, especially if you’re into international law and history (hopefully you also have other hobbies), and standing in the Great Hall of Justice as an American you’re reminded of how narrow our worldview can be, with our habit of placing domestic social causes on the same level as the international and geopolitical issues the ICJ adjudicates.

If you’re less into law and history, it’s still an amazing place to see. The architecture alone is reason enough to visit if you’re ever in the Netherlands.

The Main Hall of the Peace Palace. The door at the end of the hallway leads to the ICJ courtroom.

United Nations

You can take a virtual tour of the palace on its website.

Advisory opinions:

ICJ advisory opinions are general guidelines and advice for member states on the current status of some part of international law. The opinions aren’t legally binding, but help states understand their international obligations and what could happen for failing to meet them.

The opinions are only issued by request from a U.N. organ or agency, like the General Assembly or World Health Organization, and always come as a response to a question.

In 1996, the court issued a high-profile advisory opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, responding to the General Assembly’s question: “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance permitted under international law?

In that case, the court found international law neither permits nor prohibits the threat or use of nuclear weapons (kinda sh*tty but okay), though any threat or use must comply with U.N. law.

The climate opinion:

As I mentioned above, ICJ advisory opinions aren’t legally binding, so the climate opinion at discussion won’t establish accountability for particular countries, nor will it call for specific actions or compensation of any kind.

Still, ICJ advisory opinions are powerful, and the one at issue could help establish links between climate change and human rights, potentially providing new legal avenues for victims and helping guide countries as they craft domestic and international policy. Several climate justice lawsuits are already underway in U.N. member states, including two potentially landmark cases the European Court of Human Rights heard the same day the climate resolution was passed.

The opinion could also incentivize countries to tighten their emissions standards (something the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed) to ensure they’re compliant with the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Why it matters:

The advisory opinion comes at an important time. Recent research has shown we could surpass 1.5°C of warming within the next 10 to 15 years, even with drastically reduced emissions.

The good news is while we may miss the initial Paris goal of 1.5°C, there’s still plenty we can do to stem the climate crisis and preserve a livable world for future generations, and the advisory opinion the ICJ will deliver will help.

Limiting global warming will, like the term implies, take a global effort, and several rich countries already have net-zero goals between 2050 and 2070, including the U.S., the E.U., China, and India.

While it’s good that rich nations appear to be trying to achieve climate goals, it’s important to remember that the nations most vulnerable to climate change are small island nations like the ones that spearheaded the U.N. climate resolution.

It’s also important to note that while the resolution was adopted with most countries voicing support, the U.S. did not. The Biden administration took the position that diplomacy, rather than a judicial process, should be the route taken to combat climate change.

The resolution’s adoption also came about two weeks after the administration approved a new oil drilling project in Alaska, and right around the same time it put drilling rights for thousands of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico up for auction as a concession to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to get his support for the Inflation Reduction Act.

The ICJ will hold meetings to shape discussion around the climate resolution in the coming weeks, and the advisory opinion is expected sometime within the next year.

Read this post on Medium here.