Before the pandemic, before the floods that swept through my hometown and across Appalachia, before the two cyclones that struck Vanuatu earlier this spring, I stood on the United Nations plaza with a group of friends in September 2019. As the after-party for the UN Secretary General’s Youth Climate Summit continued late into the night, talk turned to an innovative theory from a group of law students in the South Pacific. An obscure procedural mechanism—Article 96(1) of the UN Charter—would allow the General Assembly to request an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice, jump-starting the development of climate law around the world.
But the road would be long—first finding a country to introduce a resolution in the General Assembly, and then reaching a voting majority of 193 member states. The protocol and procedure were puzzling, and talk drifted to other things. Yet the core question lingered in our minds. What do we owe future generations? Or—as the impacts of climate change become increasingly impossible to ignore—those on the front lines today?
When Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change took up the cause in 2019, they sparked a campaign that would carry this question all the way to the world’s highest court. But it would be years after that night outside the United Nations to make it back to the General Assembly.
The idea to have the International Court of Justice take up climate change is even older. In 2016, the IUCN World Conservation Congress adopted a resolution in support of an advisory opinion on climate change from the ICJ. Around 2011, Palau, a country in the South Pacific, sought to pass a resolution in the General Assembly requesting the same, but ultimately fell short. The roots of climate litigation—that future generations have justiciable rights to a stable climate—date back decades, to a case called Minors Oposa v. Factoran in the Philippines. Antonio Oposa Jr. filed suit to halt old-growth logging, listing his own children as plaintiffs. Few people—Oposa himself included—expected he would succeed.
That case changed the trajectory of environmental law in the Philippines, causing ripple effects around the world. To Oposa—or “Sir Tony,” as he is known to many of the law students he mentors—legal action is like “lighting a star.” A case is not solely about the outcome in a court of law but also about the conversation it creates. Today, this single star has spun into a constellation, helping to inspire Juliana v. US—which argues that the government has infringed on young people’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by fueling climate change—as well as cases in Europe, Colombia, and more.
The world did not stand with Palau in 2011, but since then, the conversation has changed. UN Secretary General António Guterres posed on the cover of Time in knee-deep water. As secretary general, Guterres made climate change his number-one issue, opening the climate summits to the world. From the UN Youth Climate Summit in 2019 to COP, more young people began attending these negotiations than ever before.
From a group of students in the South Pacific, word of the campaign traveled through side events and group chats, through the loose constellation of the youth climate movement. We marched for miles with Fridays for Future NYC in 2019, and they stood with us again before the vote this spring. We reached students from around the world at the UN Youth Climate Summit. Within a year, Oposa, president of the Law of Nature Foundation, and Ralph Regenvanu, a member of Vanuatu Parliament and the minister of climate change adaptation, spoke at a virtual UN side event with climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor and other young people supporting the campaign.
By COP26, the World’s Youth for Climate Justice had formed as a global youth movement to campaign and mobilize support for Vanuatu’s diplomatic mission at the UN. By the next Pacific Islands Forum, Australia had signed on. And, by COP27, dozens of countries supported the resolution.
Oposa once said that everything has to happen at the right time. Vanuatu has long been recognized by legal scholars as a leading light in climate negotiations—developing the concept of loss and damage, and more recently championing the ICJ campaign, a fossil fuel nonproliferation treaty, and other innovative legal theories. Yet not even Vanuatu could reach a consensus vote in the General Assembly alone. The ICJ campaign needed the youth climate movement to help carry it. It would take everyone—from the dozens of diplomats in the core group drafting the resolution to school children striking on the sidewalk outside. Vanuatu accomplished what no one in history has done before—a resolution requesting an advisory opinion adopted by consensus—because they asked for it in a way no one has done before.
Vanuatu invited everyone to the table. Their diplomats and attorneys held an extraordinary number of informal talks and negotiations while drafting the resolution. “A humble campaign that began three years ago on the Vanuatu campus of the University of the South Pacific culminated in the adoption of a UN General Assembly resolution requesting an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice,” wrote Julian Aguon and Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh, two of the lawyers from Blue Ocean Law that represented Vanuatu, in The Nation. “The resolution was a diplomatic feat of herculean proportions on the part of the government of Vanuatu.”
On March 29, the resolution was adopted. Over 130 countries cosponsored the proposal—an unimaginable number that night on the plaza in 2019. This wave began with a ripple. It was a conversation that youth movements—World’s Youth for Climate Justice and Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change—carried forward, resulting in an extraordinary diplomatic victory in an area of law that desperately needs one.
Oposa said once that there is no limit to what we can accomplish when we do not care who gets the credit. The majority of the young people who championed this campaign will likely never have their names in legal textbooks, and many will never set foot in the General Assembly. Yet, together, we are part of a wave that shook some of the most elite negotiating tables in the world.
This wave includes law students of Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change and young people from across the South Pacific, who organized legal memos, marches, and even music videos in support of the campaign. It includes Nicole, Aditi, Elisa, Khulekani, Samira, Marijn, and the many others from World’s Youth for Climate Justice who worked during the early days of the campaign. It includes Sanskriti Deva, the youngest person ever to organize the UN Association’s annual summit, who helped provide a platform to Ambassador Odo Tevi of Vanuatu in the critical weeks before the vote. It includes Jule, Mert, and the other organizers of the European front, who posted a picture of balloons outside the Hague when we heard the resolution had been cosponsored by the majority of the General Assembly. It includes Pooja, the founder of Youth Climate Collaborative, whose journey with the campaign began at the UN Youth Climate Summit and continued to COP and beyond. It includes Kyra, whose journey with the campaign took her from Yale Law School to speaking at a Fridays for Future rally. It includes José, Aoife, Himmat, and dozens of others who worked across continents and time zones, the stubborn optimists who made the campaign what it was.
This is only a fraction of the young people who made the campaign possible, but whose voices—if not their names—will echo in the history of international law.
The text of the resolution reflects a historic consensus and sends a clear message to the court. Law school sometimes teaches us that law is a zero-sum game—a chess match that is inevitably slanted toward the wealthy and powerful. But law can also be a conversation—one we all participate in. The court’s opinion and the future we create together remain to be fully heard. And until then, we will continue working to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table.