Speaking at a virtual summit held by countries most at risk of climate change, Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu warned Vanuatu is taking aim at fossil fuel corporations and the industrialised countries who support them.
"My government is now exploring all avenues to utilise 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,” he said.
Regenvanu said it was an injustice that the impacts of climate change are felt first – and hardest – by the countries least responsible for causing it, and who benefit least from the exploitation of fossil fuels. "I am therefore today putting the fossil fuel industry, and the states that sponsor it, on notice that the climate loss and damages ravaging Vanuatu will not go unchallenged."
Loss of support from larger neighbours
Richie Merzian, climate and energy programme director at The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based thinktank, said Vanuatu's decision comes after Australia withdrew its support for the UN's central Green Climate Fund, which allows big-polluting developed countries to help smaller, developing countries cope with the challenges of climate change.
"This fund is the main vehicle for climate support. Australia had provided funding and had taken on a leadership role in the Green Climate Fund but, under the current Prime Minister (Scott Morrison), Australia has turned its back on the fund," said Merzian, who is also a former Australian government negotiator to the UN on loss and damage from climate change.
"This fund was crucial to the Pacific to give them large amounts of support to deal with adaptation but also to help them change their energy systems and to reduce their emissions. Vanuatu made a point of saying that if countries like Australia - our neighbours and our friends - are closing the door to the UN's authorised vehicles for climate change support, then we're going to have to look at other ways that we can get that support ... so it's almost an act of desperation."
Frontlines of climate change
Vanuatu's legal move marks the latest in a growing number of climate lawsuits - in the Philippines, Peru and some US states and cities - seeking to hold the fossil fuel industry to account.
With a population of 260,000 people, Vanuatu is a Y-shaped archipelago made up of 82 small volcanic islands, many of which sit less than a metre above sea level. “Like most of the Pacific, Vanuatu is on the frontlines of climate change. That was tragically demonstrated by Cyclone Pam, which killed 15 people... left 75,000 homeless and caused more than - $590 million - in damage,” Greenpeace Australia Head of Pacific Net, Kelvin Anthony, said.
“The Pacific is not holding back anymore. Our small economies are at risk due to climate-fuelled disasters and slow onset impacts and that has put us in a vulnerable position globally. We will take every step we can to up the pressure on the high polluting economies. It is our right to survival.”
So what exactly does climate change look like in Vanuatu? From tropical cyclones to damage that creeps in more gradually, Merzian says the effects are devastating. "The slow onset impacts are rising sea levels and increasing salinisation of the land, which means it's not as fertile, as well as extreme heat days - but what really throws a country into a tailspin is when there is increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events from climate change.
"So, a major cyclone can knock the country to the point where it wipes out the majority of its gross domestic product in one weather event. What used to be 1 in 100 is now becoming far more common and, when you stack these up, you really put the country into a difficult position and one that it can't sustain."