April 26, 2023
Inside the Youth Campaign to Bring Climate Change to the World’s Highest Court
By Eleanor Buchanan
After years of organizing, a global movement of young people helped push the UN to request a consequential opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice.
By Robin Happel
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.