Law School Conference Explores Implications of Rising Seas for Island Nations

June 09, 2011

Soon after Columbia Law School emptied out at the end of the spring semester, its Jerome L. Greene Hall filled up with representatives of some of the world’s most remote island nations. The topic of their three-day meeting was the danger posed by rising sea levels. If, as scientists predict, sea levels rise by at least one meter during this century, some island nations could essentially cease to exist, posing a host of unprecedented humanitarian and legal issues.

“We are the canaries in the climate change mine,” said Dessima Williams, the ambassador of Granada to the United Nations and the chair of the Association of Small Island States, in a speech to the hundreds of lawyers, government officials and scholars who had gathered for the conference, titled “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate.”

The Marshall Islands, just west of the International Date Line and just north of the equator, are considered one of the most endangered, along with Tuvalu and Kiribati, also in the Pacific Ocean, and the Maldives and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

The global networking event was convened byMichael Gerrard, a Columbia law school professor and head of its Center for Climate Change Law. Scholars around the world have been working separately on the issues, but “now they have formed friendships that will greatly facilitate international exchange on these issues,” he said.

Gerrard had the idea for the May 23-25 event after Philip Muller, the Marshall Islands ambassador to the United Nations, approached him for assistance in late 2009 with the unique legal questions posed by rising oceans.

Funding from Columbia’s Earth Institute, the World Bank and the governments of South Korea, Australia and Israel made it possible for delegates from the endangered nations to attend, he said.

Though there was talk during the three days of reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, most of the conference participants seemed resigned to the inevitability that climate change will affect them. “There has been enough talk. It is time for action. It is time we took charge of our future,” said Jureland Zedkaia, president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, during an emotional appearance at a dinner in Low Memorial Library.

During the three days of meetings, there was discussion of reparations—whether developed nations could compensate the island nations for their losses. Even before any islands are completely submerged, rising sea levels and extreme saltwater flooding may decimate freshwater supplies and destroy agriculture, making the islands difficult or impossible to inhabit. But, as several participants noted, it may be difficult to establish in a court of law a causal link between an island nation’s fate and the actions of particular defendants. Nor is it clear which courts could hear such claims.

Monetary damages wouldn’t solve the biggest problem facing the island nations: Where will their citizens go, and what legal rights will they have when they arrive in their new countries?

Many commentators appeared to favor an international treaty to establish the rights of “drowning nations” citizens to emigrate to other countries. But Jane McAdam, a law professor at the University of New South Wales, dismissed the idea. “There is little international political appetite for a new treaty,” said McAdam, who added that “focusing on a treaty may distract from other solutions.”

Many presenters discussed what would happen to the sovereignty of submerged nations. Would the countries continue to have legal recognition like the Order of Malta, which ceded its island territory long ago but continues to be treated like a sovereign for some purposes? Would they retain their seats in the United Nations and other international bodies? Even a submerged nation will want to “maintain a government that can defend its interests in the international arena,” advised Jenny Grote Stoutenburg, a visiting scholar from the University of California, Berkeley.

And—crucially for their economic survival—would the island nations retain some of their exclusive economic zones, which give them fishing and mineral exploration rights? The countries might need to abandon the practice of defining their borders in accordance with “low tide lines.” Such lines will certainly move—or even disappear.

If there is any bright side, McAdam noted, it is that the slow onset of climate change, “unlike many other triggers of displacement, provides a rare opportunity to plan.”

—by Fred A. Bernstein