The tiny island of Vanuatu is taking on the world’s fossil fuel giants, seeking compensation for destruction linked to climate change.
The Pacific island nation was battered by a fierce storm earlier this year that wiped out most of its infrastructure. Along with five other countries, including the Philippines, it now wants to take the world’s leading fossil fuel companies to court.
Experts say it is a sign of things to come.
“This is something the legal community has been thinking about for some time,” said Lynda Collins, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Environmental Law and Global Sustainability.
“I think there is no question that as states begin to confront the price tag of climate change, they will seek compensation from those responsible. . . . It’s impossible to say when and how that will happen, but it will.”
Kiribi, Tuvalu, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Philippines
Led by Vanuatu, the People’s Declaration for Climate Justice was signed Monday by Kiribati, Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and the Philippines.
“As the people most acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, we will not let the big polluters decide and assign our fate,” it says. “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.”
The climate change predicament for low-lying Pacific island countries is threefold: stronger and frequent storms, rising sea levels and ocean acidification that threatens the marine life on which these tiny islands depend.
More than 90% of Vanuatu island destroyed by Cyclone Pam
Vanuatu was in the news in March when Cyclone Pam ripped through killing 24, displacing 3,300 and destroying more than 90 per cent of the tiny island’s infrastructure.
The Philippines was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan which made landfall in early November 2013 and killed more than 6,000 people.
This “declaration” — coming just months before the crucial United Nations climate meeting in Paris in December — could face several hurdles before it is even heard in a court, including jurisdiction issues.
But Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law in Vancouver believes that “a country has a pretty credible basis for claiming jurisdiction over damages that occur within its borders, even if the damage is caused internationally.”
The real message of the declaration is that rich countries and fossil fuel companies cannot ignore the impact of climate change in poor countries, Gage pointed out.
Climate change’s biggest victim also the least equipped
In many cases, developing countries suffer the worst impacts of the warming world but they are the least able to address those effects, he said.
“But climate impacts are being felt in developed countries, as well,” Gage said. “The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy has estimated that climate change will cost Canada $5 billion per year by 2020, so the question might be asked how long we can ignore the impacts of climate change even in Canada.”
Individual litigation is already happening
He pointed to the case of the Peruvian farmer who is suing German energy company RWE, demanding the company pay for protective measures he has been forced to install on his property, which is in the floodpath of Palcacocha Lake. The lake is threatening to overflow as the glaciers that feed it continue to melt due to climate change. The farmer alleges RWE’s emissions contributed to the greenhouse effect.
It wasn’t the only climate change legal challenge that has made headlines around the world.
Last summer, a Tuvalu family was granted residency in New Zealand after claiming to be climate change refugees, saying they would be affected by rising sea levels if they were forced to return home.
Reminder of legal action against tobacco giants
For some, including Collins, climate change litigation is a reminder of the legal action against tobacco giants.
“It took decades for liability to attach to tobacco companies, but ultimately the cost to governments got so high that they really needed to recoup,” said Collins.
“It didn’t also make much sense to subsidize these companies — profitable, private industries — by paying for all the damages from the public purse. I think that the same logic to some will be irresistible in the climate context.”
By Raveena Aulakh. Source: The Star