Vanuatu: life in the world’s most climate-endangered country
South Pacific country is one of the most at risk from climate change, and is fighting for climate justice
The tiny island nation of Vanuatu, 1,800 kilometres east of Australia, is at the front line of the fight against climate change. This low-lying chain of 80 islands strung across the ocean, with a population of just under 300,000, is the world’s most at-risk country for natural disasters, as measured by the UN World Risk Report 2021.
The report, published annually since 2011 and covering 181 countries, increasingly determines a country’s risk profile by sea-level rise. By this metric, Vanuatu is the country most affected by the climate crisis.
Climate change and impending environmental disaster isn’t really news, of course. The real story emerging from the region is Vanuatu’s declaration of a “climate emergency” on 28 May and its push for international climate justice protected by international law.
Vanuatu’s initiative is groundbreaking. It is seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, on the rights of present and future generations to be protected from climate change. In order to get an ICJ opinion, Vanuatu needs to secure at least 97 votes at the UN General Assembly in September.
ICJ opinions are non-binding, but would have moral authority, say experts and could help shape international law on climate change. International legal scholars and practitioners discussed Vanuatu’s campaign at a special conference in The Hague in June. It is one of the first such high-profile events organised by the Pacific firm Blue Ocean Law, which Vanuatu has engaged for the campaign.
Clearly, the stakes are high for Vanuatu. In the words of the country’s prime minister, Bob Loughman, “Across small islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, we are already seeing higher and stormier seas, ocean heatwaves and acidifying seas lethal to marine life, and storms strong enough to wipe out an island’s entire agricultural production.”
It sounds pretty dire — but what does a looming climate emergency really look and feel like? openDemocracy spoke to some Vanuatu residents about the effects of climate change on their island home.