Kwajalein Atoll - Marshall Islands.

Kwajalein Atoll - Marshall Islands. (Image by: Vanderberg Witness)

Citizens from small island nations in the Pacific Ocean have known for decades that their geographic isolation, heavy coastal infrastructure, population dispersion across many islands, and low-lying atolls only meters above sea level make them the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world. However, now changes in the global climate are accelerating, and the shorelines of countries such as the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Nauru and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) are increasingly battered with severe storm, coastal erosion and sea-level rise. Frustrated with the lack of progress at the United Nations climate change negotiations, and mindful that they need to be prepared for the possibility the sea may soon submerge their homelands, these islanders have brought their case – and unprecedented legal and policy questions – to the world community.

A conference late May at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law, Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate, organized at the request of the Marshall Islands government, brought together academics from institutions such as Columbia, NYU and the University of New South Wales; diplomatic groups such as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS); and NGOs such as Islands First to explore complex and unusual questions on state sovereignty, marine rights, international treaties, and migration and resettlement. For those like myself who have worked with small island nations, this public discussion, as well as the burgeoning of academic papers on these subjects, were largely new.

Climate change and the highly likely scenario that small islands will disappear in the near future – even if emission levels stabilize at current levels, according to the IPCC’s 2007 Summary for Policymakers – challenge many aspects of international, and domestic, law and policy as we know them today. The host of new issues never before addressed includes what options are available for a state, deterritorialized due to climate change, to maintain its sovereignty; how to treat ambulatory coastlines in international law, which has implications for a country’s marine rights; and how to deal with the possible relocation and resettlement of thousands of individuals. These questions need to be balanced with the ongoing challenges of assigning responsibility for emissions and of developing countries accessing sorely needed mitigation and adaptation funding.

After three days of presentations and discussions among legal, science and social science scholars, it was clear that there are few easy answers. Some issues, such as statelessness and resettlement, are fraught with emotion and uncertainty. Others, such as migration due to climate change, are characterized by a lack of credible evidence. The conference wavered between, on the one hand, rallying the many lawyers in attendance into using the law to help the small island nations, and on the other hand, recognizing the limits of the law to provide that assistance.

Diplomats from small islands also issued their own rallying cries. RMI Ambassador Phillip Muller, said the fact his government had to organize this conference was nothing to celebrate because it highlighted the failure of the international community to address climate change urgently. Yet he also was buoyed by the media and academic attention, and hopeful that there was still time to save his tiny low-lying country. RMI Minister of Foreign Affairs John Silk said the conference represented his country’s first steps to finding solutions to difficult problems rather than acting as “passive or silent victims. “We, the Marshallese and all nations and people at the front lines of vulnerability,” he said, “should be more actively defining our future in all eventualities instead of letting others write it for us.”

This is the first in a series of posts on the conference at Columbia University, “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate”. In upcoming posts, I will explore in greater detail the issues of statelessness, marine rights, ocean acidification, and migration and resettlement.

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