HAMBURG, Germany (CN) — In their final arguments, a coalition of small island nations told the world’s top maritime tribunal on Tuesday it has the power to order immediate action on climate change.
The Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law is asking the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for an advisory opinion that clarifies what legal obligations countries have to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The group argues that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which established the court in 1982, all 169 members have a legal obligation to tackle climate change.
They are hoping the tribunal will issue an advisory opinion spelling out what steps countries must take under international law. Though non-binding, opinions carry significant legal weight.
"The best available science provides thresholds and targets that must be met," COSIS lawyer Catherine Amirfar told the court’s 21 judges.
The group has supplemented its legal pleadings with a series of expert reports on the impact that climate change is having on the world’s oceans. Under the treaty, states are obliged to “prevent, reduce and control pollution” and “protect and preserve the marine environment.”
For the tribunal to conclude that signatories to the treaty have to take action, COSIS must demonstrate that carbon dioxide qualifies as pollution and the release of the greenhouse gas is having a detrimental effect on the ocean environment.
“Carbon pollution” is how Sarah R. Cooley, the director of climate science at the environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, describes the by-product of burning fossil fuels. She authored a report submitted to the tribunal on the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans.
Cooley told the judges on Monday in her presentation that as ocean temperatures rise, the water is less able to soak up the greenhouse gases. “The ocean absorbs 26% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide,” Cooley told Courthouse News in an interview, referring to the amount of the gas released by human activity.
As the seas become less able to take in carbon dioxide, more ends up in the atmosphere, which traps more heat and “the problem snowballs,” Cooley said.
Warming ocean temperatures make it harder for marine life to survive, disrupt ocean currents and wreak havoc on ecosystems. As the water in the ocean heats up, it expands, causing sea levels to rise. Melting ice also increases sea levels.
According to Shobha Maharaj, the science director at global reforestation group Terraformation, small island nations are bearing the brunt of climate change. “There are islands with problems, and islands with more problems,” she told Courthouse News in an interview.
In large countries, coastal communities might be able to move inland. But island populations have nowhere to go. Climate change also intensifies extreme weather events, like hurricanes. And, Maharaj pointed out, countries are spending money that could be used to mitigate the impact of climate change on rebuilding after storms.
Two weeks of hearings opened at the sea tribunal on Monday, with the leaders of Antigua and Barbuda, Tuvalu and Vanuatu telling the court that diplomacy had failed and it was time for legal action.
“Without rapid action, climate change may prevent my children and grandchildren from living on their ancestral home,” Gaston Alfonso Browne, the prime minister of the Caribbean nation Antigua and Barbuda, said in his opening statement.
More than 30 countries have also filed statements in the case and their presentations will start on Wednesday with Germany.Follow @mollyquell
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