Climate change could leave island nations stateless

An aerial view of part of the small island Tuvalu surrounded by blue ocean water

The island nation of Tuvalu.INABA Tomoaki/Wikimedia Commons

This story was originally published by Keeper and is reproduced here as part of the Climate window collaboration.

Small island nations he’d rather fight than flee, but rising sea levels have prompted apocalyptic legal arguments about whether a state is still a state if its land disappears beneath the waves.

The Pacific Islands Forum, which represents many of the most vulnerable countries, has invited international legal experts to consider this matter and has launched a diplomatic campaign to ensure that the political state continues even after the physical fabric of a nation has been submerged.

At the heart of this discussion is the scientific certainty that the oceans will continue to rise for at least another century and a sense of injustice that the people most affected are among those least responsible for the climate crisis. The Alliance of Small Island States represents more than a quarter of the world’s countries, but is responsible for less than 1% of global carbon emissions, most of which comes from the large industrialized countries of the global north.

This has halted an expansion of the world’s oceans that is already underway and will accelerate in the second half of this century. The maps of the islands are already being slowly redrawn and the coasts are increasingly threatened by storm surges. Within decades, archipelagos could lose the peripheral atolls that define national borders. A century from now, if not sooner, entire states could become uninhabitable, raising questions about what will happen to their citizens, governments and resources.

The World Bank said current relevant regulations were drafted in a period of climate stability and may need to be reassessed to take into account an unprecedented situation under international law.

At a conference on this topic in Fiji this year, Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown framed this debate around a series of existential questions: As our shores are being eaten away by rising sea levels, what will of our sovereignty of our lands, of our titles, of our houses? What will become of our fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by our constitutions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? How can we realize our shared vision when our very status as states is challenged? How can we fulfill our responsibility to our peoples if their homes and livelihoods are taken away from them? These questions are hard but real. They require solutions.

Simon Kofe, foreign minister of Tuvalu, one of the most vulnerable nations, stressed the need for a redefinition of global rules and a recognition of what is due to the citizens of the most affected countries. The threats of rising sea levels and the erosion of our statehood are not mere hypotheticals, but very real and present dangers that we face head-on, he said. Our discourse is not limited to legal instruments and policies, but includes the survival of our people and our nations. We have the power to make a significant impact by acting with urgency and decisiveness.

Action priorities are largely determined by the timing of anticipated impacts. The science of sea level rise is well established, but there are several uncertainties surrounding future levels of greenhouse gas emissions and the rate at which the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting.

Robert E. Kopp, a professor of earth sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey and a lead author of the IPCC report on global sea level rise, said a country like Tuvalu was unlikely to be fully flooded until 22nd century. The possible collapse of the gigantic Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica could push it forward, but that would take decades.

The most immediate risk, he said, was from storm surges — it’s not just sea level rise, but when a place is flooded several times a year. This view was echoed by Climate Central’s Peter Girard, who said the floods would hit long before full flooding: it could become impossible to live along the coast without protection.

Tuvalu and other island states have recently begun reinforcing some of their coastlines with concrete flood barriers, but this is only a partial defense that will diminish over time and will always be vulnerable to tsunamis or other major flood events as well as increases in groundwater.

In the face of these threats to the integrity of the nation, protecting legal rights is a priority. In 2020, the Pacific Islands Forum called for international guarantees of existing sea zones and the resources within them, even if land territory is eroded.

More recently, Tuvalu has launched a diplomatic push for other nations to recognize its statehood regardless of the physical impacts of climate change.

Kofe noted that the definition of statehood under international law was reflected in the Montevideo convention, which establishes four criteria: physical territory, population, government, and the ability to enter into relations with other countries. Were we to take this definition, Tuvalu could lose its state status if we lose our physical territory or are forced to relocate to a different location, she said. So we’re just imagining this worst-case scenario, if it comes to that, we’d like the world to continue to recognize our statehood as permanent.

So far seven governments have made this commitment: Venezuela, the Bahamas, Saint Kitts, St Lucia, Vanuatu, Niue, Palau, Gabon and Taiwan. Tuvalu is also in discussions with bigger neighbors like New Zealand and Australia.

Tuvalu is also digitizing its government to make relocation easier, while legal scholars have considered whether statehood could be maintained by leasing land in another country.

Patricia Galvo Teles, member of the International Law Commission who attended the conference in Fiji, recalled the historical precedents of wartime governments in exile, or the historical transfers of the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta.

However, in those cases, the moves were temporary and away from a physically intact homeland. A state evacuating due to climatic pressure may find it more difficult to demonstrate its long-term viability if its land is increasingly submerged in water. The loss of productive land and other economic resources could also make it difficult to meet international obligations to protect the assets of its citizens, maintain embassies or pay for membership in global organizations.

Galvo Teles noted that international law does not provide a special legal category for climate refugees or people affected by sea level rise, so existing human rights and refugee agreements must be relied upon. If states can continue to be political entities regardless of the physical loss of land, he said, the issue of statelessness probably won’t arise much further on. However, there could be complications if people evacuate to another nation that doesn’t allow dual citizenship or birth registration of foreign nationals.

One solution, proposed by the World Bank, would be to merge with another state, as Zanzibar and Tanganyika did in 1964 to form Tanzania.

Delegates to the conference said speculation about a landless state and stateless citizens should not distract from the more pressing task of persuading big emitters, such as the US, Europe, China and India, to cut greenhouse gases, which was the most effective way of reducing pressure on the oceans.

Galvo Teles said delegates at the Fiji conference wanted to counter the narrative of climate refugees and endangered nations. The new initiative is one of the nations on the rise and the message is: we are not drowning, we are fighting, he said. That meant more emphasis on getting industrialized nations to take responsibility for the problem and cut emissions. If you admit that you will disappear, there will be less effort on mitigation and adaptation measures, he said.

Henry Puna, secretary general of the Pacific Islands Forum, stressed that climate action is the best chance for small island nations to secure their rights and survival. We must not lose sight of the bigger picture, he said. Ensure we keep [rises in] global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius must always remain a top priority for us.

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