It is the culmination of a four-year push led by Vanuatu and other Pacific nations to get climate change in front of the world’s highest court.
Vanuatu Prime Minister Ishmael Kalsakau described the decision as a “massive win for countries feeling the effects of natural disaster, after natural disaster”.
“There can be some resolution upon how we respond to the effects that we’re facing as smaller countries, and the court can clarify what the obligations and duties are with countries that are involved with some of these disasters,” he said.
The bid eventually won the support of 120 co-sponsors, including Australia and the celebrity endorsement of Jane Fonda.
“The science is clear. As long as the world fails to eliminate our collective addiction to fossil fuels, climate impacts will only get worse and more and more people will suffer,” she said.
Through the resolution, world leaders asked the ICJ to form an advisory opinion clarifying international legal consensus on climate change’s impacts on human rights and the rights of future generations.
The opinion will be non-binding, but experts say it could influence the outcome of climate change court cases around the world.
What is an advisory opinion?
As the UN’s judicial arm, the ICJ is often asked to provide answers to legal questions to guide UN organisations and member countries.
These are called advisory opinions and outline what current international law has to say about a given legal question brought to the court through a UN resolution. While the court’s rulings are not binding, they influence international opinion.
In the past, the ICJ has considered the legality of constructing an Israeli-built separation barrier, and ordered Myanmar to prevent acts of genocide against Rohingya Muslims.
The opinions themselves are not judgements, and the ICJ does not have the power to jail, fine or punish individuals or companies on the basis of them.
But according to Professor Margaret Young, an international law expert at Melbourne Law School, they carry legal weight and moral authority that can influence future decisions.
“Advisory opinions are requests from United Nations organs like the General Assembly for advice on legal questions to guide those organs in how they respond to issues … [and] are not intended to be binding on states.”