Pacific Islands, such as Fiji,  face numerous challenges due to climate change despite contributing less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These challenges include extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones, sinking islands, increased displacement, biodiversity loss, rising sea-levels, economic and food insecurity and the spread of infectious diseases. These issues can sometimes feel overwhelming and seem never-ending. However, the good news is that there are many dedicated individuals across the Pacific islands who are working tirelessly to solve these problems.

One such notable person is Vishal Prasad, a 27-year-old, Campaign Director of the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change, a ICJ advisory, Climate Justice activist and an international politics and law graduate from Fiji.

If someone were to ask Prasad to describe his home country, Fiji, and the neighboring islands in the Pacific, he would sum it up with three phrases: "Community is at the heart, free from hustle culture, and custodians of the world's largest oceans."

Sadly, Prasad has also witnessed how Fiji, has drastically changed as a result of the ongoing climate crisis, which has brought with it rising sea levels and increase in extreme weather events such as cyclones, and other climate-related impacts have affected the people of Fiji and neighboring islands. 

As a child, Prasad remembers cyclones being a rare occurrence, which usually happened during the November to April cyclone season. However, over time, he has noticed the frequency and intensity of cyclones in the Pacific islands has increased significantly. Prasad recalls the tragic event In 2016, when Fiji was hit by Tropical Cyclone Winston, which was classified as a category 5 storm —the highest category possible. The storm caused massive destruction, with hundreds of homes in villages being completely uprooted. Many lives were lost, and people were left without water, food, or electricity for several days.

He shared his first-hand experience of visiting one of the villages in Fiji that had been impacted by the series of cyclones and landslides in 2020: 

“I was fortunate to visit one of the villages that was very severely affected, it was a village in the northern part of Fiji, as a result of twin cyclones and the intense rain they had suffered a landslide and homes in the village were completely lost. There was a deep fear within the remaining villages because of what happened, another landslide could be very imminent. And so those who lost their homes, those who had this feeling, relocated to living in tents in 2020 and they’ve been living there ever since. I visited them a month ago. It was a very horrific experience to see the conditions in which these people are living. They've been forced to raise children who were born while they were living in the tents and they're three years old now. They have absolutely no privacy in these tents. They have one large tent that houses seven to nine people,” he says.

Moreover, Prasad also shared how rising sea levels in Fiji has forced many to relocate and leave behind the place their families have called home from generations, leaving behind their ancestral burial grounds and way of living.

Scientists foreshadow that greater environmental stress in some regions will force an estimated 216 million people to migrate internally by 2050 unless the world acts decisively to reduce carbon emissions. However, Prasad has seen first-hand that Fiji and other Pacific islands are already experiencing an increase of displacement and relocation as a result of the climate crisis. 

Prasad became interested in climate change when he first heard about it in his Year Four classroom. Since then, the issue has been very important to him, especially because it’s considered the single greatest threat for the Pacific. In school and at university, he was taught about climate change and its impacts, and how urgent it is to take action. Prasad was particularly motivated to become a climate activist because he felt that there was a lack of action and progress towards addressing the issue, despite the solutions being available. 

In 2019, he learned about a group of 27 law students from the University of South Pacific, hailing from eight neighboring Pacific island countries, who had a plan to request an advisory opinion on climate change and human rights from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). He was inspired by their ambitious plan and collective effort. Although he was not part of the initial group of students, he joined as the group’s full-time campaigner, a few months later, once things started to take off, fresh from completing a degree in law and politics. In 2023, he was appointed the group’s campaign director. 

These law students were frustrated by the world's lack of action on climate change and its adverse effects on their home countries and other climate-vulnerable nations. In March 2019, they launched a campaign named "Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC)" to urge the Pacific Island Forum leaders to take up the issue of climate change and human rights with the ICJ. In 2022, the group successfully secured support from Vanuatu and other Pacific nations to request an opinion from the ICJ on climate change. The campaign also gained support from  1,700 civil society groups across 130 countries, as well as support from governments around the world. 

In March 2023, the campaign gained approval from the United Nations General Assembly, recognizing the significant challenge of climate change and requesting the ICJ to provide an advisory opinion on the legal obligations of states in addressing it.

Despite achieving their initial goal, the group's work is not yet complete. To persuade the ICJ to act, they need to gather enough votes from United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) members in favor of their idea, as well as encouraging states to submit their written statements to the ICJ

Prasad believes that seeking an opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on climate change and human rights is essential for achieving climate justice. Obtaining a positive opinion would provide "security under international law, clarify country positions, and highlight breaches of country obligations under international law, specifying the necessary remedies". He also believed it would promote greater "accountability, equity, and fairness". According to Prasad, the problem of climate change requires an "all-hands-on-deck approach", including asking the courts to seek the involvement of the highest court in the world to provide clarity on the issue.

Since joining the group as the campaign director, Prasad has played a significant role in advocating for greater climate justice at the highest court in the world, with a focus on securing the Pacific youth demands for the protection of current and future generations from the adverse effects of climate change. His efforts are crucial in ensuring that climate justice is achieved on a global level. 

His advocacy along with the efforts of PISFCC, builds upon the rich history of climate leadership demonstrated by Pacific Island nations. This leadership includes proposing the Loss and Damage Fund decades before its realization, as well as spearheading the campaign for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Prasad is one of this year’s Global Citizen Award winners which celebrates remarkable changemakers  who are taking exceptional actions in the fight against extreme poverty, demand equity, and protect the planet. As a Global Citizen Prize: Citizen Award winner, Vishal will receive a year-long programme of support from Global Citizen, as well as a donation to his grassroot organization, Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change. 

He expressed his gratitude towards the recognition from the Global Citizen Prize award, stating, "When I was first told that I was selected for this award, I realized that the achievements that I've made would not have been possible without the people who have been supporting us. The people who have made this true, so I always make it a point to mention that this award and the role of this award essentially belong to everyone who has been part of the ICJ advisory opinion. This isn't just mine, but something that belongs to a lot of people you might not see around, and so I think a lot of credit goes to these people."


Defend the Planet

This Fijian Climate Justice Activist is Taking Climate Change to The World’s Highest Court

By Fadeke Banjo