UNU Paper Examines Climate Change Impacts on the Sovereignty of Island States

16 January 2012: The UN University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) has released a paper on the impact of climate change on Atoll Island States, the legal effects of potential re-location of their citizens living in low-lying islands, and issues of sovereignty, which determines the ability of the people of the islands to keep long-term control over their current natural resources. 

The paper, co-authored by Lilian Yamamoto and Miguel Esteban, focuses on the situation of Atoll Island States because they are considered highly vulnerable to climate change, as their highest point is often only a few metres above sea level, which would force their population to emigrate to foreign countries as a consequence of sea level rise and other climate change effects. The paper highlights some countries in this category, including Tuvalu, the Maldives, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tokelau. The paper stresses the importance of the status of a submerged Atoll Island State, and if sovereignty could be preserved through civil engineering defence works.

The paper discusses six future scenarios for Atoll Island States. The first scenario is a no change scenario, which is considered very unlikely given the current climate drivers and their impact and change on coral reefs. The second scenario is a barren rock, which describes the possibility of the coral reef ecosystem reaching an environmental tipping point and rapidly shifting into an alternative state, such as being replaced by algal ecosystem with less biodiversity and fisheries. This would affect the island's capacity to sustain human habitation and economic life on its own. The third scenario is submergence. The paper notes that, as per UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an island that is entirely submerged would have difficulty claiming that it existed as a State and would probably lose the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the islands. Borrowing from the case of the Netherlands, scenario four focuses on the potential of using sea dykers to prevent rising waters. Scenario five proposes building lighthouses, as ‘sovereignty markers' for the cases of islands completely submerged. Finally, scenario six proposes building houses on piles and stilts, where coral reefs fail to keep up with the sea level rise.

From the different scenarios provided, the paper discusses the possibility of having a government-in-exile, which would center on the idea that islands could re-emerge one day in the distant future, where the descendants of the current inhabitants could re-claim these lands. The scientific basis for this is also discussed, highlighting the complex physical and socio-political problems and uncertainty associated to the status of these countries. [Publication: Atoll Island States and Climate Change: Sovereignty Implications]