Tiny Vanuatu Uses Its ‘Unimportance’ to Launch Big Climate Ideas (2023)


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It wants a top international court to weigh in on whether nations are legally bound to protect against climate risks.

Tiny Vanuatu Uses Its ‘Unimportance’ to Launch Big Climate Ideas (1)

BySomini Sengupta

Nikenike Vurobaravu presides over a tiny country with a large hand in climate diplomacy.

Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of his Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu and its population of just over 300,000 people. Its best defense, he says, it to raise its voice creatively in international diplomatic talks.

(Video) Voices from Vanuatu: Climate Change Impacts and Human Mobility

From Vanuatu in 1991 came the idea that industrialized countries should pay for the irreversible climate-induced damage faced by developing countries like his. Last month at the United Nations climate talks in Egypt, an agreement was reached — after 30 years of negotiations — to establish a fund that would help poor countries cope with climate loss and damage.

Earlier this year Mr. Vurobaravu used the United Nations General Assembly podium to demand, for the first time, afossil fuel “nonproliferation treaty.”

Now, he is dangling Vanuatu’s most provocative suggestion yet. He wants the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial body, based in The Hague, to weigh in on whether governments have “legal obligations” to protect people from climate hazards, and more crucially, whether failure to meet those obligations could bring “legal consequences” under existing international laws. In short, it’s asking the court to say whether countries could be sued for climate inaction.

“We think outside the box,” said Mr. Vurobaravu, a quiet-spoken man whose gray downturned mustache gives him the appearance of a sad face emoji, though he’s anything but. As a small country that has historically been unimportant, as he put it, Vanuatu has learned to innovate. “If you try to proceed in the way that others do things, I believe we wouldn’t have gotten very far,” he said.

The draft resolution has been co-sponsored by 17 other countries, including at least one industrialized nation with a large share of historic emissions — Germany. Neither the United States nor China have endorsed it.

Diplomacy may well be Vanuatu’s only defense. Vanuatu has no army and no valuable commodity except tuna, which are increasingly moving away from Vanuatu’s territorial waters as the oceans warm.


Vanuatu’sdraft resolutionrequesting a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice was put up for discussion in mid-November at the General Assembly. Negotiations over every word and comma are expected over the next months, with a vote potentially in early 2023. To be adopted, the resolution needs a majority of the 193 member countries at the General Assembly. The votes of superpowers and small nations count equally.

To understand Vanuatu’s uniquely oversized role requires understanding its unique history.

The islands, inhabited by its Indigenous Melanesian people since the sixth century B.C., were jointly ruled by Britain and France for nearly 100 years. Europeans were drawn to Vanuatu’s sandalwood in the early 1800s, and then to its land and labor. Settlers established cotton plantations, then coffee, bananas and coconuts.

Vanuatu gained independence in 1980.

That’s when Mr. Vurobaravu, who was trained as a lawyer, became a diplomat. He set up his country’s foreign service.

In 1981, when Vanuatutook up a seat at the General Assembly, his friend, Robert Van Lierop, an American filmmaker-turned-lawyer, became its first envoy to the United Nations. Vanuatu went on to help create the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS, which has since become an influential bloc of 39 countries in global climate negotiations. Mr. Van Lierop proposed a“loss and damage” mechanismin 1991, as a United Nations climate convention was being negotiated.

The idea of seeking a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice came from a group of law students four years ago, Mr. Vurobaravu said. By then, Vanuatu’s capital had been pummeled by a category 5 cyclone, Pam. Entire villages were flattened. Crops destroyed. Anearly warning system was creditedwith keeping the death toll low: 11 people died.

(Video) Island nation threatened by climate change wins important backing from U.N.

Mr. Vurobaravu is now 72 and grandfather of two. “The impacts are becoming worse and worse of climate change,” he said. “When I look at their faces and I think about what it’s going to be like when they’re 20, when they’re 30?”

Category 4 and 5 cyclones are now common, and cyclone season, which goes from November to March, is also the planting season for Vanuatu’s subsistence farmers. The last major cyclone, in 2020, hit his home island, Malo. For close to a year, Malo’s people relied on aid.


Already, six villages on four islands have been relocated. Drinking water has become saline and they’re no longer livable. Cyclones and warmer ocean waters have destroyed coral reefs and the fish that many people subsisted on. Dengue and malaria are on the rise.

Which is why when the law students suggested looking into whether existing international laws could be used to protect future generations, Mr. Vurobaravu said, he couldn’t just turn them away. In his culture, he said, elders have obligations.

“They’re asking the government leadership, they are asking the regional leadership, they’re asking international leadership to pick up their obligation,” he said.

Last month, Mr. Vurobaravu sat in a small room at a noisy, crowded convention center in Sharm el Sheikh, where the climate talks were being held, and reflected on the demands of younger generations. He said he heard them asking, “How come you’re drunk on fossil fuels?”

The campaign for a legal opinion is complicated by geopolitics. A similar effort more than a decade ago by two other Pacific island nations, the Marshall Islands and Palau, went nowhere, in large part because of opposition from more powerful countries. (The United States has authority over the defense and security of both countries and the U.S. Army has a missile defense site in the Marshall Islands.)

Tiny Vanuatu Uses Its ‘Unimportance’ to Launch Big Climate Ideas (3)

(Video) Indigenous knowledge and inclusive ocean governance: a case study from Vanuatu | One Ocean Hub






Pacific Ocean





Vanuatu’s geopolitical relationships are different. China is stepping up its diplomatic influence in the Pacific, including with Vanuatu, which is introducingChinese language instructionin its schools. Australia is its biggest trading partner, and the nation is defended by Australia, New Zealand and France.

It has its diplomatic eggs in many baskets, and its president said he wasn’t concerned about pressure from rich, industrialized countries to drop the campaign for an international legal opinion. “If they threaten us, we stop? This thing will stop? I doubt it ma’am,” he said.

The draft resolution asks the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, to assess existing laws, such as the covenants on cultural rights and the Law of the Sea, to consider whether they protect current and future generations from climate hazards. Already a handful of national courts have ruled in favor of activists’ lawsuits, relying in part on international law.

“A decision from the ICJ could be the most authoritative statement to date of the obligations that international law imposes on states to control their greenhouse gas emissions,” said Michael Gerrard, a law professor at Columbia Law School, who was involved in the previous effort by Palau and the Marshall Islands.

To hear Mr. Vurobaravu tell it, Vanuatu’s diplomatic strategy has been shaped by its history. Britain and France, rival powers, could never agree on most things concerning the governance of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu, he said, had to figure out strategies that bigger, more powerful countries would have no reason to pursue. “We had to learn how to manage our unimportance. And I know it sounds a bit corny and funny, but our people had to do that for 75 years, he said. “We still do.”

A correction was made on

Dec. 9, 2022


Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article described incorrectly the geography of Vanuatu. It is a group of volcanic islands, not an atoll nation.

(Video) PACC Vanuatu: Vital Roads

How we handle corrections

Somini Sengupta is The Times’s international climate correspondent. She has also covered the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia and is the author of the book, “The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young.” @SominiSengupta Facebook

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Tiny Vanuatu Uses Its ‘Unimportance’ to Launch Big Climate Ideas? ›

Tiny Vanuatu Uses Its 'Unimportance' to Launch Big Climate Ideas. It wants a top international court to weigh in on whether nations are legally bound to protect against climate risks. Nikenike Vurobaravu presides over a tiny country with a large hand in climate diplomacy.

What is Vanuatu doing about climate change? ›

By 2030, Vanuatu aims to switch to 100 percent renewable energy for its energy generation, making use of solar, wind and hydro energy.

Why is Vanuatu vulnerable to climate change? ›


1 The nation's exposure to natural hazards, extensive low-lying coastal zone, development context, and precarious natural resource base mean it is amongst the most vulnerable nations to climate change in the world.

What are the environmental issues in Vanuatu? ›

The nation's logging industry threatens the forests and contributes to the problem of soil erosion. Forests currently cover 75% of the land area. The reefs on Vanuatu's coasts, which are the home of the country's marine life, are threatened by inappropriate fishing methods and siltation.

What is the resolution of the UN Vanuatu? ›

The resolution means that the UN General Assembly will seek the opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on countries' obligations to address climate change. The resolution was spearheaded by the Pacific nation of Vanuatu, a country bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.

What is the climate plan of Vanuatu? ›

Vanuatu, one of the most climate-vulnerable countries, launches ambitious climate plan. The Pacific country of Vanuatu has launched one of the world's most ambitious climate policies, committing to 100% renewable energy in electricity generation by 2030 and ambitious targets on loss and damage.

What are some facts about the climate in Vanuatu? ›

Vanuatu's climate varies with latitude, from wet tropical in the northern islands, which receive over 4,000 millimeters (mm) of annual rainfall to the dryer subtropical in the southern extremes of the archipelago, where annual average rainfall measures 1,500 mm.

What is the biggest problem in Vanuatu? ›

Earthquakes and tsunamis

Vanuatu is prone to significant year round seismic and volcanic activity, with associated risks of tsunamis.

Is Vanuatu the most at risk country in the world? ›

Vanuatu is the world's most at-risk country for natural hazards, according to a UN University World Risk Index. "Every year, we are affected by natural disasters, and the severity increases because of climate change," Vanuatu's Ambassador to the UN, Odo Tevi, told Anadolu Agency in an interview.

What makes Vanuatu unique? ›

Vanuatu boasts 113 distinct languages and innumerable dialects. This makes it one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth. Vanuatu has three official languages: Bislama (pidgin English), French and English. The population is predominantly young with 62% of the population below 24.

What is the problem with Vanuatu? ›

Vanuatu is recognised as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change and disasters. Cyclones and extreme rainfall are common. Volcanic activity, earthquakes and tsunamis also affect the country.

Why Vanuatu is the world's most at risk country for natural hazards? ›

Located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Vanuatu faces frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

What country has the most environmental issues? ›

10 Worst Countries For the Environment
  • Afghanistan.
  • Mauritania.
  • Yemen.
  • DRC.
  • Sudan.
  • Moldova.
  • Azerbaijan.
  • India.
Jan 12, 2017

What conflict has the UN resolved? ›

Since 1948, the UN has helped end conflicts and foster reconciliation by conducting successful peacekeeping operations in dozens of countries, including Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Namibia and Tajikistan.

What are the 3 goals of the UN Charter? ›

to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. to cooperate in solving international economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

What is the Vanuatu initiative ICJ advisory opinion? ›

The advisory opinion represents an opportunity to clarify the legal obligations of States with respect to climate change. For Vanuatu and supporters of the resolution, this is also a chance to spur transformative climate action, advance climate justice, and protect the environment for present and future generations.

Which country has the best climate change plan? ›

Denmark, Sweden, and Chile are leading countries in climate action. Here's why and what other countries can learn from their climate policy strategies.

Which country has the most ambitious climate plan? ›

Finland has passed arguably the world's most ambitious climate target into law. It aims to be the first developed country to reach net zero, in 2035, and net negative – absorbing more CO2 than it emits – by 2040.

Are there plans for climate change? ›

Reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 50-52% below 2005 levels in 2030. Reaching 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. Achieving a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.

What is Vanuatu well known for? ›

Stunning landscapes, beautiful untouched waters, WWII shipwrecks, rich history and culture, friendly island people, an active volcano, fresh seafood, award-winning chocolate, the world's only underwater post office, and Kava. There are almost too many reasons to visit Vanuatu.

What is good about Vanuatu? ›

Known for its gorgeously pristine coastline and laid-back feel, the Vanuatu Archipelago is one of the premier vacation destinations in the South Pacific Ocean region.

What is one fact about Vanuatu? ›

Formerly the jointly administered Anglo-French condominium of the New Hebrides, Vanuatu achieved independence in 1980. The name Vanuatu means “Our Land Forever” in many of the locally used Melanesian languages. The capital, largest city, and commercial centre is Port-Vila (Vila), on Éfaté.

Is it safe to live in Vanuatu? ›

Crime in Vanuatu is low. Crime tends to increase in the lead-up to holidays such as Christmas and Independence Day (30 July). The risk is also higher at night or in isolated locations.

Is Vanuatu a good place to live? ›

Vanuatu is a beautiful country with a relaxed lifestyle and friendly people. The cost of living is very low, and there are plenty of opportunities to earn an income. Vanuatu is also a great place to live if you want to be close to nature.

Why is Vanuatu underdeveloped? ›

Economic development is hindered by dependence on relatively few commodity exports, vulnerability to natural disasters, and long distances from main markets and between constituent islands.

What is the most disaster prone country in the world? ›

The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Located along the Pacific ring of fire, the Philippines is highly susceptible to seismic and volcanic risks. The country is also subject to the world record of typhoons every year. Climate change and pandemics are exacerbating those risks.

Which country has most natural disasters? ›

In 2022, the United States experienced 26 natural disasters, which made it the most natural catastrophe-prone country in the world that year.

Which country has the lowest country risk? ›

The United States is considered the benchmark for low country risk. Analysts may refer to MSCI Indexes, OCED reports, or rating-agency reports for help in analyzing country risk.

Which is better Vanuatu or Fiji? ›

Vanuatu is less commercial and tourist-heavy than neighbouring Fiji. In Vanuatu there is a strong contrast between the resorts and upbeat rhythm of Port Vila and the traditional, untouched village life of the more remote islands. Vanuatu offers families a low-key and less crowded getaway.

Are people in Vanuatu friendly? ›

The Vanuatu people are very friendly and they will be able to help advise you on things like appropriate attire for village tours, etc.

Which is the happiest island in the world? ›

Aruba is famous for its quintessential sunny Caribbean scenery, with white sand beaches and swaying palm trees. Palm Beach, Eagle Beach, Oranjestad and Druif Beach offer a perfect Caribbean holiday with a variety of options for entertainment.

Can Americans move to Vanuatu? ›

You can definitely relocate to Vanuatu as a foreigner. Thanks to the Vanuatu Citizenship by Investment Program you can become a Vanuatu citizen in exchange for an economic investment.

Is Vanuatu a US ally? ›

Vanuatu and the United States belong to several of the same international organizations, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, the Pacific Community, and Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

What is the leading cause of death in Vanuatu? ›

NCDs, particularly circulatory system diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory disease, are among the leading causes of adult morbidity and mortality.

What are the 5 countries that are most vulnerable in terms of disaster? ›

The WorldRiskIndex calculates disaster risk for 193 countries and thus 99 percent of the world's population; the Philippines, India and Indonesia have the highest risk, followed by Colombia and Mexico.

What contributes to the high percentage of Vanuatu in the world risk Index? ›

According to the article, among the factors that make life on Vanuatu so dangerous are high exposure to natural disasters, lack of coping capacities, susceptibility through inadequate infrastructure such as water and sanitation, and lack of societal and policy adaptation to the prevailing environmental conditions.

What state has the most natural disasters? ›

Texas witnessed 368 major disasters from 1953 through 2022, according to MoneyWise, the most of any state. The recent standout is 2017's Hurricane Harvey, which had more than $125 billion in damage — most of it from catastrophic flooding in Texas.

What is the cleanest country in the world? ›

The cleanest country in the world is Denmark as per the Environmental Performance Index (EPI).

What country is doing the least for climate change? ›

According to the EPI, Denmark also ranked first in climate policy, climate change, and carbon dioxide growth rate (by having the lowest growth).

What has the UN failed to achieve? ›

Unfortunately, the U.N. also had many failures, such as stopping the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In addition, U.N. aid workers were blamed for spreading cholera in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Allegations of sexual misconduct and rape were leveled against U.N.

Has the UN failed to protect human rights? ›

The United Nations was established to safeguard world peace and security, development, and human rights yet it is undeniable that currently it is failing to protect the rights of a great many people –– from the victims of ethnic cleansing, to migrants, those displaced by war and women who suffer horrendous abuse.

What are the least 3 of the issues confronted by the United Nations today? ›

International Law and Justice

The UN continues to promote justice and international law across its three pillars of work: international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

What are the human rights under the United Nations Charter? ›

Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

How many countries are not in the UN? ›

Two countries are not members of the U.N : Palestine and the Holy See (Vatican City).

What are the 7 organs of the United Nations? ›

Main Bodies
  • General Assembly.
  • Security Council.
  • Economic and Social Council.
  • Trusteeship Council.
  • International Court of Justice.
  • Secretariat.

What is the ICJ decision of Vanuatu? ›

The small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu won a major victory to advance international climate law Wednesday after it persuaded the U.N. General Assembly to ask the world's highest international court to rule on the obligations of countries to address climate change.

How is climate change affecting Vanuatu? ›

Rising sea levels create not only stress on the physical coastline, but also on coastal ecosystems. Saltwater intrusions can contaminate freshwater aquifers, many of which sustain municipal and agricultural water supplies and natural ecosystems.

Is Vanuatu seeking an advisory opinion? ›

After a year-long campaign by the Pacific island state Vanuatu, the UN General Assembly unanimously made a historic decision by requesting the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an Advisory Opinion on the legal obligations regarding climate change on 29 March 2023.

What countries are trying to fix climate change? ›

3 Leading Countries in Climate Policy
  • Denmark. In June 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark has developed a “Global Action Climate Strategy: A Green and Sustainable World” to slash emissions and set a framework for limiting global warming below 1.5C as set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. ...
  • Sweden. ...
  • Chile.
Mar 1, 2023

Which country will be most affected by climate change? ›

Chad. Chad ranks as the world's most climate-vulnerable country on the Notre Dame-Global Adaptation Initiative Index, which examines a country's exposure, sensitivity and capacity to adapt to the negative effects of climate change.

What is Fiji doing to stop climate change? ›

Fiji's nature-based seawalls are a prime example of NbS. To enhance their climate resilience, the Government of Fiji is planning over a dozen nature-based seawalls in various vulnerable coastal communities across the country. The Ministry of Waterways is undertaking such a project in Dakuinuku village in Tailevu.

Where is the best place to live in the world to survive climate change? ›

A paper published by the Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom has identified five countries in geographical locations with “favourable starting conditions” that may allow them to be less touched by the effects of climate change: New Zealand, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Ireland.

What is the most survivable country in the world? ›

New Zealand was found to have the greatest potential to survive relatively unscathed due to its geothermal and hydroelectric energy, abundant agricultural land and low human population density.

Where is the best place to survive climate change? ›

The best cities for climate change
  • Seattle, Washington. Like San Francisco, Seattle doesn't expect to see a drastic increase in days with extreme heat or high heat and humidity. ...
  • Columbus, Ohio. ...
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota. ...
  • Baltimore, Maryland. ...
  • Portland, Oregon. ...
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ...
  • Richmond, Virginia. ...
  • Houston, Texas.
Dec 22, 2022

What is the vulnerability of Vanuatu? ›

And along with the other Pacific small island developing States (SIDS), Vanuatu faces existential threats due to rising sea level, ocean acidification and the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters and is on the front line of climate crisis.

What is Vanuatu best known for? ›

Vanuatu is probably best known for its famous traditional drink called Kava, a mainstay in Vanuatu's native culture for centuries and of incredible importance to the people of Vanuatu.

Where will be unlivable in 2050? ›

Even the majority of the world's warmest and wettest regions have a wet bulb of no more than 25 to 27°C. In 2050, scientists estimate that it will be very difficult to live in South Asia and the Persian Gulf, i.e. countries such as Iran, Kuwait and Oman.

Which 3 countries are the most historically responsible for climate change? ›

China is currently the highest emitter, followed by the US. Combined emissions from the European Union are the next largest, with India and Russia following.

Is it too late to stop global warming? ›

While the effects of human activities on Earth's climate to date are irreversible on the timescale of humans alive today, every little bit of avoided future temperature increases results in less warming that would otherwise persist for essentially forever.

Is Japan doing anything about climate change? ›

Funding of overseas coal power ended in 2021. The Japanese government said that they would try to be carbon neutral as soon as possible in the second half of the century. The official goal of the Japanese government is to be net zero in 2050.

What is Norway doing against climate change? ›

Norway has committed to a 90-95% GHG emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2050 and included this target in their long-term strategy submitted to the UNFCCC in 2021 and restated in Norway's 2022 updated NDC.

What is Norway doing to stop climate change? ›

The capital of Norway is working to be nearly emission-free by 2030. Every year, the city of Oslo calculates how much emission-producing activity will contribute to greenhouse gases, then implements a carbon budget to keep those levels low.


1. Vanuatu Worst Hit Nations by Climate Change: Coconut Fuel, Mangroves to Pig Farming | Environment
(Examrace (UPSC, NET, NCERT, ICSE ...))
2. Vanuatu before the storm: Environmental education
(ABC Science)
3. [Virtual Event] Scaling up Water Access in SIDS - Lessons learned from Vanuatu
4. Susutainable Livelihoods & Adapting to climate change in Vanuatu
(Pacific Community)
5. Vanuatu: Planting trees to fight climate change
(Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR))
6. Vanuatu before the storm: Coconuts and Cattle
(ABC Science)


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