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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Rights of Sinking Nations

Air Date: Week of

Rising sea levels are forcing some small-island states into new legal territory. Climate change talks, so far, have yielded no guarantees that entire countries won't become uninhabitable, and legal scholars and representatives of low-lying nations are beginning to think about what rights a country has if it’s washed away by water. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports.


GELLERMAN: Among the toughest talkers at international climate negotiations are representatives from small island nations. After all, at stake is their very existence. As global warming melts glaciers, rapidly rising sea levels threaten to inundate low-lying island countries. It’s a crisis that raises several unique legal issues as Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports.

TAJ: UN climate negotiations involve a lot of talking, sometimes for days on end, about financing or the obligations of major greenhouse gas emitters. But one conversation the international community hasn’t had yet, raises questions of a more existential nature:

GERRARD: If a country is underwater, is it still a state?

TAJ: Michael Gerrard directs the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

GERRARD: Does it still have a seat at the United Nations? What happens to its fishing rights and its mineral rights? What is the citizenship of its displaced people? Do they have any legal rights against the countries that caused that pollution?

TAJ: The center recently hosted a conference with the Marshall Islands to tackle those topics.

GERRARD: It's tragic that we even have to ask these questions.

TAJ: But island nations perched a couple meters above sea level need answers, even as they struggle against the scary scenario embedded in the premise: their homelands washed away by rising tides. Anote Tong is the president of Kiribati, a Pacific island nation made up of islands that sit an average of just six feet above sea level.

TONG: So the question arises, what do we do? Well obviously we cannot swim for the rest of the millennium. So we have to relocate. Unfortunately we have to look at that option, undesirable as it may seem.

Micronesia says the expansion of the coal-fired Prunéřov power plant in the Czech Republic threatens its existence.

TAJ: The Kiribati government is already helping its citizens relocate to Australia and New Zealand. But other small island states are struggling to strike a balance between preparing for the worst, and insisting it never happen. Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed is the ambassador to the UN for the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean.

MOHAMED: As far as Maldives is concerned, I don’t think that migration of the country as a whole is an option. I mean, it’s something we would not want to think about.

TAJ: To highlight its struggle against rising sea levels, the Maldives has held an underwater cabinet meeting, and vowed to become carbon-neutral within a decade. But as a tiny contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, Mohamed says the fate of his homeland will largely depend on the actions of big polluting countries with relatively little at stake.

MOHAMED: The fact of the matter is that people say in Manhattan, they can move to another part of the US, they can move to higher ground, there is enough land. But in countries like the Maldives there is no other land to move to.

TAJ: Right now, the sea keeps small-island states like the Maldives economically afloat; and maintaining the right to exploit resources in the water — whether tuna fish or oil — could help a displaced nation survive.

But current international law says a country’s exclusive economic zone stretches into the water 200 miles from its territorial edge. James Stovall, legal counsel to the Federated States of Micronesia, wonders whether a nation could lose it all—its homeland and its economic engine.

STOVALL: In the case of Micronesia, which is 600 islands scattered around something roughly the size of the continental US, you wind up with a vast region of economic zone. So what happens from a legal standpoint, when the island goes underwater, does that economic zone disappear? These are not questions that have been answered.

TAJ: Legal scholars are working with small island nations to make their current boundaries permanent with the UN. They think the international body will be willing to accommodate the ongoing economic needs of nations facing flooding due to climate change, and would also be unlikely to kick a sunken nation out of the General Assembly.

What’s less clear is what would happen to the people who lose their homeland. Columbia law professor Michael Gerrard says past environmental destruction in the Marshall Islands indicates one approach. After the U.S. tested nuclear weapons there in the 40s and 50s, communities were forced to abandon contaminated islands.

GERRARD: The atoll of Bikini was where many of these tests took place. People could no longer live in Bikini because of the residual radiation, but Bikini still has a town hall on the capital island of Majuro, the displaced people of Bikini still elect a Senator to the national parliament, and people go to the Bikini town hall to collect food stamps and welfare benefits.

TAJ: But relocating the entire population of a sovereign country to a new land is more complicated. Jim Stovall remembers what happened to a tiny island state near Micronesia, called Narua.

STOVALL: Narua is a phosphate island, and was mined for many years by an Australian conglomerate that just mined it down to the sea level basically. So they worked out an arrangement that the population would be moved to a place in Australia. They were not able to find any place that was willing to accommodate them.

TAJ: Narua considered taking the matter to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, but eventually agreed to a complicated plan that required Australia hauling shiploads of dirt to help restore the island.

STOVALL: (laughter) This is, I think, a pretty good example of why you don't just say, well, let's move these people someplace else.

TAJ: Stovall says Micronesia prefers to stay put, and urges industrialized countries to cut back on their emissions. It’s also opposed plans to expand a coal plant in the Czech Republic, using a legal intervention normally reserved for neighboring countries. It marks the first time a country has claimed to be threatened by a polluter more than 7,000 miles away, and could set an important international precedent for legal efforts to slow climate change.

Some islands are already taking steps like
building sea walls to adapt to a changing climate, but if the world can keep temperatures, and sea levels down, then all those other questions about what happens to a country when its land mass is swallowed by the sea might just remain a purely academic discussion. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.



Click here to learn more about Columbia's conference.


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