New York, May 27, 2011—A Columbia Law School conference devoted to the legal options for low-lying island nations threatened by climate change concluded on notes of optimism and resolve that may not have been expected when the event began.
The May 23-25 conference, hosted by the Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, focused, in part, on what happens if these nations are submerged by rising seas that climate scientists say are caused by greenhouse gas emissions. The good news: for the time being, that is not an immediate threat, said Professor Michael Gerrard, the center’s director.
“The point of submersion appears many decades ahead for almost all places,” Gerrard said at the conference’s concluding session on Wednesday.
However, he cautioned that many of these islands—in the Pacific and Indian Oceans—are only a few feet above sea level and may be more vulnerable to extreme weather events such as typhoons that are gaining in frequency and intensity. “Predicting when some of these will become a problem is very difficult,” Gerrard said.
Many discussions at the conference explored novel legal issues including whether a nation overtaken by rising seas can preserve its statehood and territorial rights.
A statehood panel tackled this issue Monday and concluded there was an ample foundation under international law for a state to assert certain rights—for fishing and mineral exploration, for example—even if it is uninhabitable. Moreover, it would also be difficult to revoke the U.N. membership of an affected country and cut off its access to remedies under international law, such as the Law of the Sea, Gerrard said.
“For a country to be expelled from the U.N. it requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly and a vote of the majority of the Security Council. That’s very tough to achieve,” Gerrard said.
In the meantime, the island nations gave every indication at the conference that they not only intend to survive but expect the polluting nations to help pick up the tab to ensure that happens.
“The Federated States of Micronesia has an inherent right for continued survival,” said the country’s attorney general, Maketo Robert. “The need to … preserve Micronesian culture is, without question, a very important one.”
Micronesia has challenged plans to expand a coal-fired power plant in the Czech Republic on the grounds that its emissions would make Micronesia more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It is believed to be the first legal action of its kind taken by a nation thousands of miles from the source of the pollution. A paper outlining the action was submitted to the conference by Micronesia, Greenpeace, and the Environmental Law Service.
Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk said the issue of legal responsibility for the harm caused by climate change needs to be clarified soon.
“Without immediate action to address dangerous climate change, obligations of due diligence to prevent harm to other countries and areas beyond national jurisdiction will be breached, if they haven’t already,” Silk said. “It is a basic principle of law that where there is a wrong, there must be a remedy.”
More than 200 government leaders, lawyers, diplomats, and academics from five continents came to the conference. As Gerrard sees it, the event can build the momentum for ongoing discussions that can help island nations cope with climate change now and well into the future and also highlight the obligations of larger nations.
“This was just the beginning, but it was a very important beginning,” Gerrard said. “People came here from a wide range of disciplines. But they are all focused on the same basic issues. Being able to see the problem from many perspectives can only provide for more effective solutions.”
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