The Fate of the Pacific Island-States (or What Happens When Nation-States are Wiped Off the Face of the Earth)

Source : https://hail.to/tui-motu-interislands-magazine/article/um4qZOX

In 2015, leaders of 195 countries around the world came together to sign the Paris Agreement. During the conference, they agreed to limit the increase of the global average temperature to 1.5­­ºC above pre-industrial levels. Despite this, many believe that it will not be enough to avoid irreversible damage to the environment, especially with Donald Trump withdrawing the United States from the agreement. At the current rate, above 200 million people will become climate refugees in a near future. While for certain people the direct impact of climate change seems fairly distant, others are already witnessing first-hand the damage that climate change can cause to mankind and the environment. This article will focus on the impact that climate change is already having on the small and often-forgotten Pacific Island-States. The goal will be to show what climate change is currently doing to some of these islands, how this will impact their future, and whether anything can be done about it.    


Nations at the mercy of climate change       

The Pacific island-states – already having high levels of unemployment, low levels of healthcare, education and a high reliance on foreign aid – constitute some of the most vulnerable states to climate change. Indeed, because of their peculiar geography, they will be significantly impacted by sea-level rises, which are expected to be between one and two meters by 2100. [1] For instance, Tuvalu’s highest point is five metres high, while its average height is around a metre. [2] Needless to say, an increase in sea-level of over a metre would seriously endanger Tuvalu’s survival as most of its land would be covered by sea-water. Unless drastic measures are taken worldwide to protect the environment, it is estimated that island-states such as Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati could all become uninhabitable at some point during the second-half of the 21st century. [3] Nonetheless, while this seems relatively distant, climate change is already having a clear visible impact on life in these islands. It is estimated that between 2016 and 2017, a few islands belonging to the Solomon Islands and Micronesia became entirely submerged. [4] Additionally, because of climate change, these island-states have to deal with more frequent and violent flooding. Not only does this seriously damage these islands’ infrastructure, which is hard to replace due to these states’ poverty, it also makes the overall survival of life on these islands much harder. Most of the islands in the Pacific are reliant on rain-water as a freshwater source. Therefore, with frequent flooding, there is an increased risk of seeing these sources being irreversibly contaminated by sea-water. [5] As U.S. geologist Curt Storlazzi said: “The islands aren’t going to drown, they’re going to die of thirst.” [6] For these Island-States, climate change is already an everyday reality.  

The Unprecedented case of physically-disappearing States

The world has never before been confronted to the physical disappearance of states. Throughout history, states have come and gone, though in general they either replaced or were replaced by another state. Therefore, frameworks in International Law on how to act when this occurs already exist, the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia being good relatively recent examples. However, when analysing the effect of climate change on island-states, the idea of a state physically disappearing might become a reality in the near future. Were a Pacific island-state to physically disappear, would it be able to survive without territory? This, of course, challenges the very ideas of the Westphalian sovereignty. The 1933 Montevideo Convention recognises a state’s sovereignty when it has a permanent population, a defined a territory, a working government and the capacity to be recognised by and able to interact with other states. [7] Of course, were one of the Pacific island-states to disappear, it would not be able to fulfil most of these criteria and therefore would not qualify as a state in the eyes of the Montevideo Convention. Nonetheless, there exist ways for these island-states to survive after their islands become uninhabitable or simply submerged. For instance, the respective governments could use the “government-in-exile” system commonly used during the Second World War: the difference here being that, unlike the Second World War, this would not be a temporary solution. [8] Alternatively, they could adopt a system similar to that of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta which has its own sovereignty and entertains diplomatic relationships with other states, without having a clearly defined territory. [9] A final option to surviving without formal territory would be Maxine Burkett’s “Nation Ex-Situ” concept, specially adapted to the case of states severely impacted by climate change such as the Pacific island-states. [10] Burkett suggested that governments of such States could be displaced to a permanent location in a foreign state and still perform their normal duties such as managing state affairs and acting in the interest of their citizens, though a legal framework would have to be established to decide how this would work in practice. Of course, there are other questions which arise from such situation, including whether the disappeared State would still be able to maintain its seat at the United Nations or whether it would still maintain its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) without its former territory. [11]         
However, if the Pacific island-states lose their territories to climate change, they could hypothetically still find ways to replace it. Indeed, they could appropriate Terra Nullius, in other words territory that does not belong to anyone yet, and relocate there, though finding a suitable Terra Nullius to replace their former home remains quite unlikely in the 21st century. [12] Additionally, they could purchase territory from another state and relocate there, however, this would not grant them sovereignty as there is a difference between having ownership and sovereignty over a certain piece of land. For instance, Kiribati bought land from Fiji in 2014 to ensure its people have a place to go in the event of Kiribati becoming uninhabitable. [13] However this would not give Kiribati sovereignty over the land bought from Fiji, but rather only ownership. Of course, in this case, Kiribati could potentially have sovereignty over the land in Fiji if the latter decided to formally handover its sovereignty over that parcel of land to Kiribati, but considering today’s context, a state ceding territory to another is highly unlikely. [14]          

In essence, however complex and unprecedented, there still seems to be many “options” for island-states such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, or the Marshall Islands to survive were their land to become uninhabitable because of climate change, though obviously no state would ever want to be confronted to such issues.       

Towards an exodus of Pacific Islanders?    

Whilst certain Pacific island-states are extremely vulnerable to climate change, by no means are they the only ones affected. For instance, an ever-increasing number of regions such as coastal Bangladesh or the Bayou region in Louisiana are also prone to devastating flooding partly caused by climate change. However, when such flooding occurs, the inhabitants of coastal Bangladesh and Louisiana can still potentially take refuge further inland. Contrastingly, the citizens of states such as Tuvalu or Kiribati do not have this option and would therefore have to leave the country to seek protection from climate change. [15] With their respective states potentially disappearing before the end of the century, certain Pacific-Islanders will become stateless climate-refugees. Of course, the current combined populations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands represent a little less than 200,000 inhabitants. This might seem numerically relatively little compared to recent refugee crises, though will definitely have a considerable impact worldwide. This is not only because of the legal consequences of states disappearing as previously discussed, but also considering that the combined population of these countries is likely to reach 300,000 by 2050 and will need to be permanently hosted by other nations as these inhabitants will have nowhere to go back to. [16]            
The situation is dire for the inhabitants of these vulnerable islands. Their sovereign territories play a central role in their culture and identity and many fear that losing their land would inevitably cause that common culture and identity to slowly disappear. If one of these Pacific island-states were to lose its territory to climate change, hence forcing its government to be displaced using either the “government-in-exile” or the “Nation Ex-Situ” system, it would be extremely difficult for the government to prevent the nation’s culture from disappearing as its citizens would be spread out across numerous countries around the world and will have adapted to the lifestyle of their host nations after only a few generations. [17]          
With the challenge of omnipresent poverty and now that of climate change on some of the Pacific islands, people with the means to leave flee to neighbouring states such as Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. This adds the issue of the departure of educated people, or “brain drain”, to the already long list of issues for these islands. [18]        

Source : https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-13/what-happens-to-maritime-boundaries-after-sea-level-rise/10804478

Is it too late?   

Is it too late to ensure the survival of these islands? That will mostly depend on how the international community will react and ensure that the aims of the Paris Agreement are respected. However, according to former-Kiribati president  Anote Tong, it might already be too late: “One of the most difficult things I’ve had to expect is planning the demise of my country. The science is pretty clear: zero emissions, we’ll still go underwater. Unless some drastic work is undertaken, there will be no option. That’s the reality. It’s not a hope. It’s not a desire. It’s the brutal reality.” [19] To protect their territory, most of these states are planning works such as building sea-dykes and reclaiming or elevating land. For instance, Tuvalu wants to elevate the land on its capital island and build high-density residential housing to house its population. Such a project would cost an estimated $300m, which Tuvalu cannot afford and, so far, has received no foreign funding for. [20] Additionally, it is estimated that constructing a sea-dyke to protect a single atoll of the Marshall Islands would cost an estimated $100m, or twice the annual economic production of the entire country. [21] These vulnerable states are constantly confronted to the fact that they do not have sufficient resources to protect themselves from what seems to be an inevitable fate. Furthermore, most of these solutions are only considered to be efficient on the short-term period.            


These island-states, generally forgotten by the international community, might be the first to fully experience the effects of climate change, despite the fact that they barely contribute to it. As mentioned by former-Kiribati secretary of foreign affairs Akka Rimon: “Climate change really puts us back on the world map. The irony is that we’re being erased from the world map.” [22] If climate change continues at its current rate, most of these states such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands will disappear before the end of the century. Though it is yet unclear what happens from legal and practical perspectives when climate change causes states to disappear and their citizens to be rendered permanently stateless; avoiding the circumstance of finding out is a moral obligation for the international community.             

References:
 [1] Vaughan, A, “Sea Level Rise Could Hit 2 Metres by 2100 – Much Worse Than Feared”, New Scientist, 2019           
https://www.newscientist.com/article/2203700-sea-level-rise-could-hit-2-metres-by-2100-much-worse-than-feared/
[2] Park, S, “Climate Change and the Risk of Statelessness: The Situation of Low-Lying Island States”, UNHCR Legal and Protection Policy Research Series, 2011: 1                    
https://www.unhcr.org/uk/protection/globalconsult/4df9cb0c9/20-climate-change-risk-statelessness-situation-low-lying-island-states.html
[3] Ainge Roy, E, “‘One Day We’ll Disappear’: Tuvalu’s Sinking Islands”, The Guardian, 2019  
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/16/one-day-disappear-tuvalu-sinking-islands-rising-seas-climate-change
[4] Allen, E, “Climate Change and Disappearing Island States: Pursuing Remedial Territory”, Brill Open Law, 2018: 1  
https://brill.com/view/journals/bol/aop/article-10.1163-23527072-00101008.xml?lang=en
[5] Sakuma, A, “Hell and High Water”, MSNBC, 2016        
http://www.msnbc.com/specials/migrant-crisis/marshall-islands
[6]Ibid.
[7] Munoz, S, “What Happens When a Country Drowns?”, The Convention, 2019
https://theconversation.com/what-happens-when-a-country-drowns-118659
[8] Park, S, “Climate Change and the Risk of Statelessness: The Situation of Low-Lying Island States”, UNHCR Legal and Protection Policy Research Series, 2011: 6-7                 
https://www.unhcr.org/uk/protection/globalconsult/4df9cb0c9/20-climate-change-risk-statelessness-situation-low-lying-island-states.html
[9] Gronewold, N, “Island Nations May Keep Some Sovereignty If Rising Seas Make Them Uninhabitable”, New York Times, 2011    
https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/cwire/2011/05/25/25climatewire-island-nations-may-keep-some-sovereignty-if-63590.html?pagewanted=all
[10] Burkett, M, “The Nation Ex-Situ: On Climate Change, Deterritorialized Nationhood and the Post-Climate Era”, Climate Lawno.2, 2011: 346            
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2372457
[11] Gronewold, N, “Island Nations May Keep Some Sovereignty If Rising Seas Make Them Uninhabitable”, New York Times, 2011  
https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/cwire/2011/05/25/25climatewire-island-nations-may-keep-some-sovereignty-if-63590.html?pagewanted=all
[12] Allen, E, “Climate Change and Disappearing Island States: Pursuing Remedial Territory”, Brill Open Law, 2018: 8            
https://brill.com/view/journals/bol/aop/article-10.1163-23527072-00101008.xml?lang=en
[13] Keating, J, “The Sinking State: This is What Happens When Climate Change Forces an Entire Country to Seek Higher Ground”, The Washington Post, 2018           
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/07/26/feature/this-is-what-happens-when-climate-change-forces-an-entire-country-to-seek-higher-ground/
[14] Allen, E, “Climate Change and Disappearing Island States: Pursuing Remedial Territory”, Brill Open Law, 2018: 11          
https://brill.com/view/journals/bol/aop/article-10.1163-23527072-00101008.xml?lang=en
[15] Sakuma, A, “Hell and High Water”, MSNBC, 2016      
http://www.msnbc.com/specials/migrant-crisis/marshall-islands
[16] Campbell, J, & Warrick, O, “Climate Change and Migration Issues in the Pacific”, UN ESCAP, 2014          
https://www.ilo.org/dyn/migpractice/docs/261/Pacific.pdf
[17] Burkett, M, “The Nation Ex-Situ: On Climate Change, Deterritorialized Nationhood and the Post-Climate Era”, Climate Lawno.2, 2011: 351-363      
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2372457
[18] Ainge Roy, E, “‘One Day We’ll Disappear’: Tuvalu’s Sinking Islands”, The Guardian, 2019            
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/16/one-day-disappear-tuvalu-sinking-islands-rising-seas-climate-change
[19] Keating, J, “The Sinking State: This is What Happens When Climate Change Forces an Entire Country to Seek Higher Ground”, The Washington Post, 2018           
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/07/26/feature/this-is-what-happens-when-climate-change-forces-an-entire-country-to-seek-higher-ground/
[20] Ainge Roy, E, “‘One Day We’ll Disappear’: Tuvalu’s Sinking Islands”, The Guardian, 2019            
https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/16/one-day-disappear-tuvalu-sinking-islands-rising-seas-climate-change
[21] Yamamoto, L, & Esteban, M, “Atoll Islands and Climate Change: Disappearing States?”, United Nations University, 2012
https://unu.edu/publications/articles/atoll-islands-and-climate-change-disappearing-states.html#info
[22] Keating, J, “The Sinking State: This is What Happens When Climate Change Forces an Entire Country to Seek Higher Ground”, The Washington Post, 2018           
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/07/26/feature/this-is-what-happens-when-climate-change-forces-an-entire-country-to-seek-higher-ground/