While seven of the world’s wealthiest and supposedly most advanced nations met in Germany to discuss climate change and agreed to stop using fossil fuels by 2100, in the South Pacific a similar conversation was being had about climate change.
Yet the result of that meeting was very different.
The six tiny countries present, under the People’s Declaration for Climate Justice, announced they will bring legal action against fossil fuel companies for their role in contributing to climate change.
The signatories are Fiji, the Philippines, Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands.
“As the people most acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, we will not let the big polluters decide and assign our fate,” the declaration states. “We refuse to accept the ‘new normal’ and demand for climate justice by holding the big polluters and their respective governments to account for their contribution to the climate crisis.”
Simultaneously, environmental rights group Greenpeace Southeast Asia announced it will submit a petition to the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, requesting an investigation into the role of major polluters in human rights violations caused by climate change.
“The power of this declaration is that it represents what I think is a growing movement of people who are no longer patiently waiting for governments to address the challenges of climate change, and who are actually saying, ‘We are going to use the legal mechanism available to us in our courts, in your courts, and human rights bodies to hold you, the polluters, accountable for the human rights violations we are suffering,'” Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said to reporters.
An example of the devestating effect climate change has on the tiny islands was seen in March, when Cyclone Pam ripped through Vanuatu, killing 24, displacing 3,300, and destroying 90 percent of the island’s infrastructure.
One week later, three more tropical storms smashed through the South Pacific, pounding the region’s island nations with wind and rain.
While no stranger to extreme weather, the islands in the region have seen a notable uptick in the frequency of the most intense storms — from 1975 to 1989, and 1990 to 2004, the occurrence of Category 4 and 5 storms more than doubled in the Pacific region, according to research conducted by the World Bank.
The trend shows no sign of letting up, either. Scientists are already warning of the potential for stronger and more frequent storms in the coming years.
But its not just storms - the islands are also suffering from rising sea levels, which threaten to overrun the islands, and from ocean acidification, which is killing marine life on which the islands depend.
According to David Hunter, director of the Program on International and Comparative Environmental Law at American University’s Washington College of Law, there are significant obstacles with mounting a legal challenge of this unprecedented scope.
“If you are citizens in Fiji and you want to sue Chevron, you’re going to have jurisdictional questions,” Hunter noted. While there are other legal technicalities that must be overcome, Hunter thinks the nations have logic on their side.
“Generally speaking, if we look at this in the simplest form, they are people that are suffering from actions that companies and others have been involved in,” he said. “If we think about the legal system as trying to remedy an injustice or an injury, then you have injury and can probably demonstrate causation from the burning of fossil fuels to ocean acidification or sea level rise.”
There's already a trend towards using the legal system to assign blame, and damages, to serial polluters, as in April some 900 Dutch nationals filed a lawsuit against their government for failing to mitigate climate change.
Belgium has also seen similar actions, where a lawsuit against the government is in its early stages. Even here at home Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon registered not for profit, has launched several youth-led lawsuits targeting state and federal entities for failing to prevent climate change.
“If you think about tobacco litigation, one case after another lost and lost and lost until the nature of the plaintiffs started changing and started growing, and suddenly the tobacco companies started losing,” Muffett said. “I think that’s the stage we’re at with climate change.”
That should strike fear in the hearts of large corporate polluters and pollution enablers. Big tobacco companies once looked invincible and yet after decades of patient documentation and legal challenges they were finally held accountable for actions they should have known better than to commit.