Vanuatu MP Ralph Regenvanu explaining the effect of see level rise on coastal communities in Vanuatu to Princess Mary of Denmark. April 2023. (Photo: X)

Pacific nations which bear the brunt of the climate crisis need the world’s biggest carbon emitters to stick to commitments to limit global temperature increases to less than 2C. 

But with little to no significant action being taken by many wealthy nations, Pacific Island countries are now asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion on the legal obligations of nation states to address climate change.

That charge is being led by Vanuatu. It has a history of exploitation fuelled by colonialism and capitalism — and now bears the impact of a climate crisis created by the same forces.

Here, Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s minister for climate change and disaster response, and a leading environmental voice in the Pacific, explains why climate justice is needed to hold major emitters accountable. He spoke to Teuila Fuatai.


Shortly after our islands came into sustained contact with the capitalist economy, and were colonised by the English and French, we lost about 90 percent of our population.

This occurred in the mid-1800s to early-1900s. The most harm came from western diseases introduced by colonisers. Our people simply had no immunity to them.

Then there was the introduction of guns into what had previously been low-fatality warfare between local people, and the deliberate policies of extermination of communities to enable foreign land possession. All played a significant part.

Our experience, and the loss of life and land, is not uncommon. Almost all colonised Indigenous peoples will have their own versions of this history. We also know that this massive depopulation and forced change to our way of life in Vanuatu went hand in hand with the dramatic transformation of our environment for commercial purposes.

To serve colonising interests, all fertile, lowland and flat areas were converted to coconut plantations and cattle plantations. We also had periods where land was used to commercially farm cotton.

For Vanuatu, this has had devastating, ongoing consequences.

In 1980, when we became independent, our only financial income was from coconuts and cattle. We didn’t choose these products, and over the years, we’ve tried to create different markets, but it’s been very difficult because these are the historical bedrock of our trade and economy. Up until a few years ago, coconut products were our major export product.

Of course, there’s been some progress. Kava, for example, is an Indigenous, independent trade product that we’ve created, and it has developed into our biggest export crop. However, we’re still reliant on the industries and products established by the English and French.

Undoubtedly, one of the most painful and unjust aspects of that history is how it’s played out through the climate crisis.

The very activities that exploited our people and land contributed to the fossil fuel-dependent economies of France, England, Australia, and other developed nations. These are the economies responsible for greenhouse gas emissions that are feeding the climate crisis. Now, our islands and communities are the victims of that crisis.

You only have to look at the last 18 months to see how severe the impacts are.

Last year, in March, we had two category 4 cyclones within three days of each other. We’d never seen that before. We have cyclones regularly, but to have two big ones within days was unprecedented. At the same time, a large earthquake hit. Throughout last year, we also experienced heavy rainfall events causing landslides and flooding.

Then, in October, we had Tropical Cyclone Lola, also a category 4 cyclone. Lola hit two weeks before the start of the official cyclone season. Also, in the second half of last year, we started seeing increased volcanic activity and ash fall from Yasur volcano on Tanna island. By December, we’d declared the south and south-east of Tanna a disaster-zone because of the damage to food crops and water systems.

We had been hoping for some reprieve after Lola, which destroyed many crops on the island, but the ashfall has prevented anything from growing. Our government is still providing those communities with food and water, and we have no idea how long the ashfall will continue.

On top of this, we’re monitoring long-term weather patterns carefully. Right now, we’re in an El Nino phase, which usually brings a bit of drought. But it’s been completely the opposite. We had a short dry period towards the end of last year, and now we’re experiencing massive rainfall events again.

Without a doubt, Vanuatu bears the brunt of severe, climate-change related events even though we’re a negligible producer of greenhouse gases. In fact, we absorb more carbon than we produce. Forests cover more than 70 percent of our islands and our extensive maritime jurisdiction is a major carbon sink.

For us, achieving true climate justice is critical.

For years, we’ve engaged in all manner of international climate negotiations and talks. We’ve gone to every COP since they began nearly 30 years ago. Unfortunately, progress and positive outcomes for Vanuatu have been minimal. Things are only getting worse.

That’s why we’re now pushing for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the obligations of states to address climate change and its harmful effects on people (not just those who are here now but also our future generations) and the environment.

These obligations are already found in a whole range of international agreements, beginning with the Charter of the United Nations itself, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

We want to clarify what happens if you sign up to agreements that say you’ll protect the environment — that you’ll reduce emissions, provide climate finance to the most vulnerable communities, and specifically address human-induced climate change by shifting your economic-base to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — but then simply don’t do it. What are the real consequences for states?

In Vanuatu, we’re actively working to address the impacts of climate change, but we need those causing the problem to come on board. Vanuatu believes climate accountability and responsibility is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as providing resources and funding to nations like ours who are suffering the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

So far, most developed nations simply haven’t honoured their climate financing obligations — and this has a direct impact on us.

In Vanuatu, we’re still having to borrow funds to build climate-resilient infrastructure because we’re not getting enough money to climate-proof our country. Critically, all our development is about building resilience in the face of increasing climate disasters because we’re in this ongoing cycle of recovery and response. That includes climate-proofing public infrastructure — energy, water and food systems are the most critical. We also need to climate-proof private homes, and our communities as a whole.

For example, right now the biggest infrastructure project in Vanuatu is the upgrading of an existing gravel road along the southern coast of Santo, Vanuatu’s largest island. This is one of the main highways in the country. However, when there’s heavy rain, it often gets washed out and becomes unusable. The road connects to Vanuatu’s second-largest city, Luganville, which is also an international port. It’s also used to transport produce from some of our most productive agricultural land.

This climate-proofing infrastructure project is being financed through a loan from the World Bank.

I hope the advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice will demonstrate that this kind of climate-funding scenario is unjust. We are the victims of the climate crisis. The perpetrators are the developed, high-emitting nations — and they should pay for the damage they’ve caused. We shouldn’t have to borrow money to address a harm that isn’t our fault.

More than that, we want other nations that are just as climate-conscious and ambitious as us to also have the means to develop sustainably.

Regionally, we’re part of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) collective, which includes the Cook Islands, Federated State of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Sāmoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu.

Together, we’re among the most climate-ambitious nations in the world. Generally, we’re in consensus around what is needed to address climate change. However, there are still challenges. For example, deep-sea mining continues to be a divisive issue. For example, the Cook Islands, Nauru, and Tonga see the industry as a potential development pathway, while others, like Sāmoa, Palau, Fiji and Vanuatu, have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining in the Pacific because of the potential environmental harm.

We also face a different set of regional challenges when we deal with Australia and New Zealand.

First, Australia’s economy is based on fossil fuel production. Domestically, it’s shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy in its energy sector, but it continues to be one of the largest exporters of fossil fuels in the world. Vanuatu and other Pacific nations have repeatedly asked for that to be addressed.

A critical starting point would be to stop the pipeline of future fossil fuel projects in Australia. We also want the significant subsidies which are going to fossil fuel production to be repurposed for climate financing for nations like Vanuatu. I believe that’s an easy way for Australia to move the direction of money away from fossil fuel production to positive climate initiatives. From bad to good, essentially.

Notably, at the 2022 Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting, members agreed to support Australia’s bid to host COP31 in two years’ time. Should its bid be successful, Forum members will certainly be pushing Australia to enact changes that wind down its fossil fuel production.

Second, we’ve seen a shift in Australia’s aid investment in the Pacific in the past few years. Australia is Vanuatu’s largest aid donor, with the majority of investment going to health, education and the social sector. Alongside climate resilience, these are our big priority areas.

However, Australia has also targeted funding at projects which aren’t a priority for Vanuatu. For example, it has contributed significant funding towards policing and other “hard security” sectors which it has identified as important to its idea of security in the region.

That kind of aid funding is inconsistent with what all Pacific nations, including Australia, agreed to in the Boe Declaration, which very clearly states that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”.

As for New Zealand, the new government’s desire to reopen offshore gas and oil exploration is disappointing. If that does happen, it’s a significant step backward. The science regarding climate change is clear: there must be no further fossil fuel production if we are to limit global temperature increase to below 2C.

For decades now, we’ve listened to developed nations promise to shift their behaviour, and then fail to do so in a meaningful manner.

I’m heartened, however, by the growing civil society movements in those developed nations advocating for their governments to take concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the use of fossil fuels, and to safeguard the environment. I’m also heartened by the increasing use of the courts to challenge local and national governments and companies who are involved in or aiding and abetting fossil fuel production and environmental destruction.

I hope that the advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice will be of assistance to these cases.

As the planet warms, and extreme weather events become commonplace everywhere, I believe it will become increasingly apparent to more people in the developed world that they have shared interests with us in the developing world.

Like us in Vanuatu, they will want to see their governments take immediate and real action to end fossil fuel use and stop the destruction of the environment. I also hope that shared understanding will extend to the top decision-makers, and that all governments will take the science around climate change seriously and honour their international environmental commitments.


Ralph Regenvanu is Vanuatu’s Minister for Climate Change Adaptation, Energy, Environment, Meteorology, Geo-Hazards and Disaster Management. Ralph is serving his fifth term as the MP for Vanuatu’s capital city, Port Vila. He has a background in cultural heritage management, and was the director of the National Museum of Vanuatu from 1995 until 2006. In March 2023, Ralph was the co-host and co-chair of the second Pacific Ministerial Dialogue on Pathways for the Global Just Transition Away from Fossil Fuels. The gathering produced the Port Vila Call for a Just Transition to a Fossil Fuel Free Pacific. He is the Pacific Ministerial Champion for Loss and Damage.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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