SINKING FEELING: Some low-lying island nations, including Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean, Kiribati northeast of Australia, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels. Image: NASA
Rising ocean levels brought about by climate change have created a flood of unprecedented legal questions for small island nations and their neighbors.
Among them: If a country disappears, is it still a country? Does it keep its seat at the United Nations? Who controls its offshore mineral rights? Its shipping lanes? Its fish?
And if entire populations are forced to relocate -- as could be the case with citizens of the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati and other small island states facing extinction -- what citizenship, if any, can those displaced people claim?
Until recently, such questions of sovereignty and human rights have been the domain of a scattered group of lawyers and academics. But now the Republic of the Marshall Islands -- a Micronesian nation of 29 low-lying coral atolls in the North Pacific -- is campaigning to stockpile a body of knowledge it hopes will turn international attention to vulnerable countries' plights.
"At the current negotiating sessions and climate change meetings, nobody is truly addressing the legal and human rights effects of climate change," said Phillip Muller, the Marshall Islands' ambassador to the United Nations.
"If the Marshall Islands ceases to exist, are we still going to own the sea resources? Are we still going to be asked for permission to fish? What are the rights that we will have? And we are also mindful that we may need to relocate. We're hoping it will never happen, but we have to be ready. There are a lot of issues we need to know the answer to and be able to tell our citizens what is happening," he said.
Frustrated by the dearth of answers to the questions he was posing, Muller said, Marshall Islands leaders contacted Columbia Law School. Michael Gerrard, who leads the law school's Center for Climate Change Law, picked up the challenge and issued a call for papers.
Theoretical questions become real
Gerrard, who is arranging a conference sponsored by Columbia University's Earth Institute next year, said that when he began reaching out to scholars, he realized most were working in isolation from one another. And, he said, some of the most ticklish legal questions facing small island nations have been understudied -- because until recently, the notion of a country's extinction has been largely theoretical.
"The prospect of a nation drowning is so horrific that it's hard to imagine," Gerrard said. Moreover, he added, until just a few years ago, it was difficult to have a conversation in the international community about how countries might adapt to climate change.
"There was a concern that it would divert focus from mitigation. But now people recognize that even with the most aggressive imaginable mitigation measures, the climate situation will get worse before it gets better, and we have to begin making serious preparation," he said.
The plight of refugees is the most emotional of the looming questions. Deciding where to relocate citizens is just the beginning for a disappearing nation. Still unanswered: What will the political status of those displaced people be? Will they assimilate into the culture and economy of their new host country, or will they retain a separate identity?
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion and accelerated coastal erosion could lead to as many as 200 million environmentally induced migrants worldwide by 2050.
The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea could be some of the world's first climate "refugees." The land is expected to be under water by 2015, and Papua New Guinea's mission to the United Nations has already announced it would evacuate the approximately 2,000 islanders to Bougainville Island -- about a four-hour boat ride away.