Rising Seas and Sinking States

by Chris Borgen

Brad Roth has sent along a link to this New York Times editorial, which begins:

If a country sinks beneath the sea, is it still a country? That is a question about which the Republic of the Marshall Islands — a Micronesian nation of 29 low-lying coral atolls — is now seeking expert legal advice. It is also a question the United States Senate might ask itself the next time it refuses to deal with climate change.

The editorial notes that while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has a “conservative” estimate of at least a 20 inch rise in sea-levels by the end of the century (excluding any effects of the possible melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets), some studies predict a 4 to 7 foot increase. The editorial continues:

Officials in the Marshall Islands — where a 20-inch rise would drown at least one atoll — are not only thinking about the possibility of having to move entire populations but are entertaining even more existential questions: If its people have to abandon the islands, what citizenship can they claim? Will the country still have a seat at the United Nations? Who owns its fishing rights and offshore mineral resources?

The government of the Marshall Islands has asked Columbia Law professor Michael Gerrard for advice. Gerrard “notes that an island can become uninhabitable before the sea level rises above it, because even moderate storms can swamp any agricultural land and render freshwater supplies undrinkable.”

On a related note, see Duncan’s post from a couple of years ago on the Maldives.

http://opiniojuris.org/2010/08/30/rising-seas-and-sinking-states/

2 Responses

  1. And a population of something like 65,000, if I recall correctly.

  2. Sorry, accidentally hit submit before finishing … should that matter?  Sovereign equality of states, on the one hand, and, well, everyone can figure out appropriate measures of scale.  Is there a cost benefit tradeoff, if one accepted various facts about how much it would cost to prevent the loss of the low lying islands, versus simply moving 65,000 people somewhere else?  Or is it simply wrong to take those tradeoffs into account?

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