Vanuatu was devastated by Cyclone Pam in 2015Vanuatu was devastated by Cyclone Pam in 2015 and said it is desperate for financial help to survive climate change's ongoing impacts. Photo credit: Dave Hunt-pool/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

Officials in the South Pacific island of Vanuatu said they are considering suing fossil fuel companies and nations that support the industry for their role in climate change, which presents an existential threat to low-lying nations. If Vanuatu does sue, it would be the first climate liability lawsuit by a national government.  

Vanuatu’s minister of foreign affairs announced the potential suit last week at a summit of countries most threatened by climate impacts, called the Climate Vulnerable Forum. Ralph Regenvanu said that his country is desperate for financial assistance to survive rising seas and violent extreme weather and is “putting the fossil fuel industry, and the states that sponsor it, on notice.”

“My government is now exploring all avenues to utilize the judicial system in various jurisdictions—including under international law—to shift the costs of climate protection back onto the fossil fuel companies, the financial institutions and the governments that actively and knowingly created this existential threat to Vanuatu,” Regenvanu said in a statement.

Vanuatu, comprised of 82 volcanic islands and home to 260,000 people, suffered extensive damage from tropical cyclone Pam in 2015 – a “monstrous” category 5 storm that was the worst natural disaster in Vanuatu’s history. The country is part of the V20, a group formed by the United Nations of the nations most at risk for devastating climate impacts and that do not have the financial resources to adapt.

“Like most of the Pacific, Vanuatu is on the frontlines of climate change,” said Kelvin Anthony of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. “That was tragically demonstrated by Cyclone Pam, which killed 15 people in Vanuatu, left 75,000 homeless and caused more than $590 million in damage.” That amount, he said, is the equivalent of 64 percent of Vanuatu’s GDP.

“The Pacific is not holding back anymore,” Anthony said. “Our small economies are at risk due to climate-fueled disasters and slow-onset impacts and that has put us in a vulnerable position globally.”

Should Vanuatu sue, it would be the first legal action of its kind—a climate lawsuit brought by a vulnerable nation against the world’s wealthiest industry and other countries.

Jennifer Morgan, executive director at Greenpeace International, said Vanuatu’s announcement is “part of a global wave of legal action against oil, gas, and coal companies and laggard governments.”

“Communities impacted by climate change are standing up and demanding that those responsible finally be held to account,” she said. “We stand in solidarity with these communities all around the world.”

A growing number of citizens and communities are turning to the courts seeking to hold fossil fuel corporations and national governments accountable for climate damage and to push for more aggressive mitigation measures.

The Philippines, another Pacific island nation devastated by a severe tropical storm—Haiyan in 2013—is currently investigating the role of fossil fuel companies in human rights violations stemming from climate change. Several hearings have already been held and the Commission on Human Rights is expected to issue its findings in early 2019. Such findings could spur legal action.

“The injustice of climate change is that the impacts are felt first and hardest by those with the least responsibility for its causes. Vanuatu is on the front lines of climate change and yet we have benefited least from the exploitation of fossil fuels that has caused it,” Regenvanu said. He said is looking for other vulnerable countries to join Vanuatu in a lawsuit and will be discussing it at the next United Nations climate conference in Poland in December.