For Island Nations Threatened by Climate Change, Conference Outlines Their Legal Remedies


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New York, May 23, 2011---The impact of climate change on sea levels has left many low-lying island nations facing a battle for survival. And judging by the discussions Monday at a Columbia Law School conference, those nations are ready to fight.
The three-day conference, hosted by the Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is devoted to the legal options and implications for nations whose very existence is threatened by rising seas.
“The issue is coming regardless of whether we like it or not. We don’t know how long it will take, but at some point there will be some islands where people won’t be able to live,” said Prof. Michael Gerrard, the center’s director.
However, Gerrard said that does not mean a nation would cease to exist. Among the topics discussed at the conference were legal mechanisms to prolong “perhaps permanently” the statehood of countries endangered by rising seas.
“It’s not the small island states that are responsible for these problems, it’s the big countries, so we think it would be very difficult for the big countries to insist on a state going out of existence,” Gerrard said.
Nor do those island nations have any intentions of going away. Philip Muller, the Marshall Islands’ U.N. ambassador, told more than 200 conference attendees in Jerome Greene Hall, the narrow atolls that make up his nation of 60,000 people are more than a place to live. They are an inextricable component of thousands of years of his nation’s culture.
“For us, land is our identity, not an interchangeable commodity,” Muller said.
“For the first time in history we are contemplating the disappearance of a state without the possibility of a successor.
“A climate-driven threat to statehood in our view cuts across the legal rights to territorial integrity and non-interference as well as the right to political independence and self-determination and permanent sovereignty over natural resources.”
Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed is the U.N. Ambassador from the Maldives, which has the world’s lowest average elevation at about five feet above sea level. He said warnings of rising sea levels have a Darwinian feel to them, and leave his nation more determined than ever to survive.
“I do not think it is right to contemplate statelessness,” he said. “These are countries and people for whom it is difficult if not impossible to leave.”
The conference is examining many issues that have come to the fore as rising seas caused by climate change eat away at the coastlines of vulnerable island nations and threaten to render them uninhabitable in a matter of decades. Experts are discussing such topics as continued sovereignty for a submerged nation, mineral and fishing rights, migration and legal remedies.
“I have to acknowledge … that threats to statehood are real and serious. Threats to our political boundaries are real and serious,” said Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk. “And the specter of complete or large-scale migration out of the Marshall Islands—however unacceptable that might be—is an option that we are going to have to specifically address, as a future risk.”
This is the first academic conference devoted to this topic. In addition to the Marshall Islands, diplomats from other vulnerable island nations are attending, including representatives from the Maldives, Grenada, Micronesia, Fiji, Nauru, Palau, and Cape Verde.
“All nations have to bear the same level of responsibility, the same level of action,” said Antonio Pedro Monteiro Lima, Cape Verde’s U.N. ambassador. If the (island nations) disappear, some level of our universal situation is threatened.”
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