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“Even States Need Instructions!”: WYCJ Discuss a Top-Down Approach to Activism

Anya, one of our co-founders, interviews World Youth for Climate Justice members, Vishal and Solomon, about their campaign for an advisory opinion from the ICJ (International Court of Justice) on climate change.

The seat of the ICJ in The Hague, Netherlands

As I log onto my zoom call with Vishal and Solomon, I glance up at the time. It is 11 am GMT and as the call gets started, both Solomon and Vishal joke that it is close to midnight for them as we speak. They seem used to this. They are both part of the World’s Youth for Climate Justice (WYCJ), meaning that navigating across multiple time zones is all in a day’s work.

Within the first few minutes of our conversation, they outline what makes the WYCJ different from other forms of environmental activism. This group operates as an almost “umbrella” space where campaigners from around the world can come together to share resources, receive advice on best practise and gain support in local campaigns. What unites all the members of the WYCJ, however, is their focus on campaigning for the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion outlining the link between climate change and human rights. They also target issues of intergenerational inequity: this means that the WYCJ does not solely focus on the rights of the current generation but also those of future generations who, Vishal says, will be even more heavily impacted by climate change than us.

When asked what they hope an advisory opinion will achieve, they say that this will legally clarify the obligations of states in acknowledging the detrimental effect of climate change. I am a little taken aback by the lack of impact in the language used; the advisory opinion (AO) appears not to be binding legislation. I probe Solomon about this - he laughs, saying that they get this question a lot. He explains that even though the AO is not legally binding it carries great moral and legal authority, “a bit like a legal catalyst.” All aspects of the climate fight would be helped by the passing of this AO - adaptation, mitigation and control. The main thing, Vishal adds, is that it would cement the consensus on the scientific discussion - there are a lot of lines of discourse surrounding what the truth about the effects of climate change are and having a concrete answer would make states more reactive; even states need instructions, they say. In their view, therefore, an advisory opinion is the necessary bureaucratic precursor to the kind of state-led systematic change many activists are campaigning for.

Solomon tells me that he was part of the 26 students from the University of the South Pacific that initially started the International Court of Justice AO campaign. They decided to use their legal knowledge to try and crack “the legal impasse” that they faced at an international level. Vishal tells me that the WYCJ began with the PISFCC (Pacific Island Students Fight for Climate Change), which he joined in late 2019. The impetus behind the PISFCC was initially personal and local, inspired by the immediate existential threat that the climate crisis poses to all Pacific Islanders, who were informed in 2018 by the results of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s study, that any advance in global temperatures of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius threatened the very existence of their home islands within their lifetimes. However, the PISFCC quickly realised that for any substantial change to be made there was a need for this campaign to go global and in September 2020 the WYCJ as launched.

Solomon speaks about the physical impacts of climate change that Pacific Islanders are already experiencing daily. They have already dealt with three cyclones in 2021 for instance. Already, extreme weather and climate change have led to a situation where very basic human rights for food, water, sanitation and housing cannot be met in some rural areas. The gravity of change on the ground is incredibly noticeable - through the loss of land, sea-level rise, reduction of water supply and a food scarcity crisis - and this means that even very rural communities, far removed from the student hubs where the PISFCC was conceived, are aware of these weather events as a new, threatening trend.

However, the evidence of climate change in the Pacific does not necessarily make it any easier to achieve change. Vishal says that the biggest barrier to their work is “lack of capacity” of these rural communities on the front line of climate change. When I ask him what he means by lack of capacity, they speak about the disproportionate impacts of climate change. Whilst human rights are seen as the lowest common denominator that all people in the world share, some don’t have the resources to access the rights that they are ostensibly meant to have. “Because when you talk about capacity, you're also talking about finances, you're talking about infrastructure, you're talking about access to technology, how can you advocate internationally when he or she doesn't have a laptop, or means, or access to internet connections.”

WYCJ training aims to address all of these issues because you cannot be on the same level as other developed countries in terms of climate advocacy and campaigning if you are handicapped by all of these other social inequalities, discriminations, and prejudices. Vishal and Solomon as well as all the members of the WYCJ hope that the work they are doing is part of the first steps in addressing not only the effects of climate change, but also the disproportionate impact that it has on human beings across the world.

I am writing this up a few days after this call: what has stuck with me most is the notion of inescapability. In England, climate change is almost seen as an interest one can opt in to - some people recycle, some do not, some go to protests, some do not, some people watch Our Planet, most prefer Love Island. We all know that sooner rather than later we might have to think a little more seriously about our environment, but for now most people in the UK engage with climate politics in a very peripheral way, if at all. Solomon and Vishal, however, have a sense of urgency to them. The tangibility of the climate crisis in the Pacific Islands has catapulted them out of this complacency and listening to them take this issue into the realm of the real has been incredibly sobering to hear.

This issue of Panoramic is in collaboration with WYCJ - to learn more about WYCJ click here.


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