Rising Sea Levels: Sinking Statehood? Georgetown International Environmental Law Review

Daniel Winter

Rising Sea Levels: Sinking Statehood?

By Daniel Winter, Staff Contributor

The potentially disastrous effects of climate change are a familiar topic, yet one often overlooked consequence is the threat to certain small island nations’ existence. The melting of polar ice sheets, combined with the warming of the world’s oceans, could lead to a rise in sea level of one to two meters by the end of this century. For a nation like the Marshall Islands, with a mean elevation of about two meters, the result would be catastrophic.

Small island nations, such as the Marshall Islands, were quick to recognize climate change as a growing threat, and in the early 1980s, the Alliance of Small Island States took an active role in the negotiations leading up to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – the first formal step by the international community to consider measures for limiting emissions.

“Small island nations were quick to recognize climate change as a growing threat…”

Several island nations have begun pursuing legal options in attempts to protect themselves. Some have sought recourse in the International Court of Justice with respect to emissions produced by other states. Another legal issue that has proven just as, if not more, important is the question of what will happen to island nations’ sovereignty should rising seas engulf their land.

Under the four criteria for statehood, a state must possess a defined territory. That criterion would be lacking for island nations whose land is completely underwater. The question then, is how these nations can preserve their statehood, their claims to resources, and their national identity without physical territory? Some advise the island nations to try to keep as much land as possible habitable and populated to sustain their claims to continued statehood.

“There is some optimism in the international community…”

Changing maritime boundaries pose another issue, and the EEZ (exclusive economic zone) of some island nations could also potentially vanish. The Law of the Sea Treaty allows states to use alternate methods to draw certain maritime boundaries, but attempting to use this to alter an EEZ would require an amendment or implementation agreement to the Law of the Sea Convention, which is highly unlikely. There is some optimism that the international community might give island nations the benefit of the doubt and simply accept their claims for continued statehood.

Although the impending statelessness of island nations poses intriguing legal issues, the islanders themselves are more interested in saving their island and their ancestral homes. Projects such as building sea wells and reinforcing coastlines are certainly options but are prohibitively expensive for most nations. Migration might become inevitable. Some island nations, such as Kiribati, have prepared themselves by purchasing land on Fiji to eventually relocate residents.

“Some island nations, such as Kiribati, have prepared themselves by purchasing land…”

Other communities have already been displaced. In 2009, the Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea packed up their lives and left their homes. Their island is expected to be completely underwater by next year. How many more communities will be displaced before the international community takes serious notice?