Island Nations Looking To Maintain Sovereignty If Lands Become Uninhabitable Due To Sea Level Rise

Island Nations Looking To Maintain Sovereignty If Lands Become Uninhabitable Due To Sea Level Rise

Global sea level rise has put a handful of nations at risk of extinction -- small island states in the Pacific and Indian oceans. But this week, a collection of international lawyers and politicians have begun work to ensure that doesn't happen.

They can't prevent what many scientists see as the physical inevitability: a rise in ocean levels of 1 to 2 meters (3 to 6 feet) by 2100, even if all greenhouse gas emitting into the atmosphere were to cease tomorrow. Rather, they are exploring ways to use existing formal and informal rules that would allow many nations to continue as legal entities entitled to ocean fishing and mineral exploration rights, even if their entire populations were forced to relocate elsewhere.

The tiny nations of the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati and more are among those at most risk in the Pacific. These atoll nations are among the lowest-lying in the world, and should their archipelagos not completely submerge, it's likely that rising sea levels and extreme saltwater flooding will permanently damage freshwater supplies and destroy agriculture, making them uninhabitable. The Maldives and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean face the same risks.

But at a three-day discussion on their legal options at Columbia University, wrapping up today, scholars are pointing out ways that these states can still maintain an identity and international legal authority, even as they lose all their habitable territory.

"It's important to maintain a government that can defend its interests in the international arena," advised international law expert Jenny Grote Stoutenburg of the University of California, Berkeley.

Creating a new field of law

Conceived last year by the government of the Marshall Islands, this week's three-day seminar on "Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate" is the first to gather experts together to develop a formal body of knowledge that can guide the most vulnerable nations, should their worst fears become reality.

Hosted by Columbia Law School, the event drew hundreds of international law experts, maritime lawyers, government officials and diplomats from distant island states and representatives from the United States, Australia, South Korea and more. The United Nations has yet to take up the sensitive topic, but the large number of U.N. officials participating in the talks suggested that the world body eventually will.

"There's been a certain amount of academic discourse on some of these issues, and certainly at the U.N. climate negotiations there is some talk of them, but the General Assembly hasn't taken any action on these questions," noted Michael Gerrard, head of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

The questions are serious ones, and at the same time intellectually interesting.

What happens to the people forced to relocate, and what is their citizenship status? Do their governments survive, and if so, do they retain their full seats at the United Nations, even though they have no habitable land to control? And do they still control the fisheries and mineral rights to the surrounding seas they now enjoy, or do those become international waters?

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It is good to finally see this being addressed. What will happen to those who will need to move due to such events as sea level rise, erosion, subsidence, salt intrusion that destroys agriculture, etc., making their land uninhabitable? How would they be assimilated into society? We have already seen instances in the Pacific where people of island nations were refused entry to Australia. In a world of overpopulation and scarcer resouces, millions of people needing to move in the future due to the effects of this will be a huge crisis.

This is crucial because it is about nations that go under water still being able to retain their international sovereignty in the face of losing the land their nation was represented by. Questions will arise regarding citizenship status, laws, culture of the land, resources they used for their livelihoods and their very identity. This opens up legal questions we have have never had to consider on such a huge scale. One of those questions for me is compensation. Would those who say, farmed agricultural lands now submerged be entitled to compensation for lands lost to the seas through climate change? If so, from whom? Rich nations that contributed to the effects? So I suppose the question really is, if a country sinks under the ocean, is it still considered a country? Is a country defined by its land, or its people?

The Inuit people of the Arctic are losing their home as well (also to expanded exploration and proposed oil drilling), andi t is all they have known for centuries. Where would they go and how would they survive in a world they have never known and cannot make a living in? This is so huge and we have been so remiss in not even considering the world that will result from this. We really need to be planning for the future instead of funding useless "wars", and I do fear many will be lost.

It will be an uncertain future for those affected by the worst of this. It comes down to our responsibility to our fellow man. Can we look beyond the politics of it to see the humanity in it? I hope, but have my doubts. There are already climate refugees in places that are going dry and the MSM says nothing.

This crisis is the test of the true moral courage and humanity of the human species.