Politics of Poverty

Why the International Court of Justice must lay down the law on climate change and human rights

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“In my community, we blow the conch shell in emergencies, and it means ‘act now!’" says Clerence Tamara, a community leader in Vanuatu. "I would like to blow the conch shell so everyone in the world can hear it, because climate change is an emergency, and to stop it, we all need to act now.” Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Climate change is one of the most pressing global issues of our time, touching every aspect of life and posing significant threats to the environment, social structures, and economies worldwide. As world leaders grapple with its complexities, it’s crucial to recognize that climate change affects all our human rights, ranging from the rights to health to housing to water—and more.

March 29, 2023 (update since original posting): The UN resolution requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice was adopted by consensus (without requiring a vote). While the US didn’t call for a vote, it was not among the approximately 130 countries that co-sponsored the resolution. After the resolution was adopted, the US delegate gave the most unfavorable statement about the resolution, saying that it will accentuate disagreements and obstruct the process. The delegate also indicated that the US will participate in the court proceedings, signaling that the US will attempt to influence the outcome in its favor.


Recently, Vanuatu (a small island country in the Pacific) and other countries initiated a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on climate change and human rights.* On March 29, the UN General Assembly will decide on whether to request this advisory opinion.

The resolution asks the ICJ to make clear what international law requires countries to do to address climate change and thereby protect the human rights of present and future generations (in their countries and in other countries). It further asks what countries must do if their emissions have caused significant harm to present and future generations, and other countries—in particular small island developing countries.

We believe that the US government should join this global effort to address the urgent need for climate justice. On March 23, Oxfam America sent a letter—signed by 31 additional civil society groups—to President Biden, asking him to co-sponsor the resolution. Supporting the call for an advisory opinion would be an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its commitment to not only addressing the consequences of climate change, but also to upholding the principles of global governance and human rights.

Our last chance to address the climate crisis

This critical decade presents humanity's last chance to confront the massive environmental degradation that has plagued the planet and its people for generations.

The recent synthesis report from the IPCC shows that we are at a crossroads–and without immediate and ambitious measures, we risk worsening the already devastating impacts of climate change that disproportionately affect marginalized communities. The actions we take today will determine our future, and we must rise to the challenge.

The importance of an ICJ advisory opinion

While the Paris Agreement is often considered the key international treaty on climate ambition, many other international laws and commitments (including human rights and environmental frameworks) should also shape global climate efforts.

The Advisory Opinion would help clarify them, and it would encourage greater ambition and catalyze action from countries worldwide. This is particularly important because under the Paris Agreement, countries have agreed to try to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C, but they are not legally bound to specific emissions reductions commitments. This helps explain why the countries’ current policies, taken together, would lead the global temperature to rise to 3.2°C—which would have devastating consequences for all countries and people on the planet.

While the resolution seeking an ICJ advisory opinion does not target specific states or governments, it does aim to bring coherence to the way international laws address climate change. Supporting this resolution will send a powerful message to current and future generations that governments are responding to climate change with determination, and acknowledging its fundamental connection to other global issues.

Already, the initiative has garnered support from at least 105 countries from all continents. They includes Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the Organization of African, Caribbean, and Pacific States (OACPS), and all members of the European Union (except Poland).

This widespread backing shows how many countries that are most affected—as well as many rich countries that are responsible for disproportionately high levels of carbon emissions—are coming together to ask how international law can help us address the climate crisis.

A Call to Action for the Biden Administration

The United States, under President Biden's leadership, has recognized climate change as a cross-cutting threat to both human and economic security, and the administration has committed to integrating climate considerations into all aspects of governmental decision-making.

However, its actual record is mixed; it includes positive steps like renewable energy funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, along with negative steps like approving expansion of fossil fuels (such as the recent Willow Project).

The UN General Assembly resolution offers a chance to add to the positive side of the ledger. By supporting the ICJ advisory opinion, the US can build on its climate successes, strengthen critical international partnerships with climate-ambitious countries, and pave the way for the more ambitious measures are needed.

So far, the US has not supported the resolution. Secretary Kerry expressed concern about the language of the request, noting that the ICJ advisory opinion would bypass international negotiations and questioning whether it would be constructive. He noted that the US had agreed to the establishment of an international Loss and Damage Fund, reversing previous opposition.

However, the ICJ advisory opinion would not replace negotiations, but rather help clarify the existing rules and principles that should guide them, and move them in a direction that is more protective of the climate and human rights. This is in every country’s national interest, as it protects people from the effects of climate change. Relying on political negotiations alone to reduce emissions would be a risky bet-given the results of over 30 years of international climate negotiations.

The US administration should heed the call from US civil society. The US civil society letter urging President Biden to support the resolution spanned a wide coalition, including climate networks such as US Climate Action Network; youth movements such as Fridays for Future (which has held demonstrations in New York calling for an advisory opinion); human rights groups like Amnesty USA; scientific groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists; environmental justice networks like the Southeast Climate & Energy Network; and faith groups like the People's Justice Council.

In addition, the world is watching. The US government has an opportunity to be a champion for climate justice and our collective future by advocating for this opinion.


*The ICJ is the principal judicial body of the UN, comprised of 15 judges elected by the UN General Assembly and Security Council to serve for nine-year terms. The judges are senior lawyers who serve in their individual capacity rather than as representatives of their countries.

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