By Nicholas Briggs (’14)
It is an age-old adage in international politics that sovereignty is everything. Changes such as globalization are simultaneously praised for benefiting the impoverished masses and chastised for diluting state sovereignty. The international community in most circumstances chooses to act when its core values (sovereignty, human rights, a liberal economic order, etc.) are threatened and will seek to address the threat immediately and forcefully. If the problem does not rise to a particular level of urgency or crisis, it will not draw the attention the solution requires. Framing an issue as a profound threat to sovereignty itself is the only sure-fire way to garner attention to the most profound issues of our time. To encourage meaningful action to confront climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, the problem of climate change must be considered in light of the threat it poses to state sovereignty and human rights.
The Marshall Islands, Palau and Tuvalu are among the dozens of island nations in the Western Pacific Ocean that find themselves facing the loss of their very sovereignty in the coming decades at the hands of climate change and rising ocean levels. Each of these nations is located on very low lying territory with vital agricultural and residential land found just a few feet above sea level. Tuvalu’s maximum elevation is just 15 feet above sea level, and these points are typically sand dunes that cannot be cultivated. Within the next century, waves generated by increasingly common storms and the slow rise of ocean levels due to melting of the polar ice caps will lead each and every one of these islands will become uninhabitable.
Due to their small populations- no more than 15,000 or so people – and their minimal economic importance, these countries are hardly on the global radar despite the severity of their plight. The majority of people in the Marshall Islands and similar island nations rely on subsistence farming to survive. Rising ocean levels, however, will begin to threaten what little arable land there is within the coming decades. The people of Tuvalu, Palau and elsewhere will soon lose the ability to provide food and shelter for themselves through no fault of their own if action regarding climate change is not taken.
What will happen to the thousands of people who call these islands home when their land becomes uninhabitable? The international community may see climate change as a problem to be dealt with by the next generation of politicians, but the very real possibility that nations may need to soon take on thousands of refugees should bring pause to any person that wishes to ignore the problem. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) and other intergovernmental organizations have been sought out to help to address the threat posed by climate change in the face of inaction by the international community.
The first step in seeking help from the ICJ came in September of 2011, when President Johnson Toribiong of Palau declared before the UN General Assembly that he would seek out an advisory opinion from the court regarding climate change. In making his case to the ICJ, Toribiong cited the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which requires states to prevent activities taking place under their jurisdiction from spreading to and polluting the territory of other states. Again, this past September, Palau made its case before the General Assembly with the backing of the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Bangladesh among others. Despite the urgency of the issue, the court has yet to release an advisory opinion regarding international law and climate change.
Now it should be said that an ICJ advisory opinion on climate change would not be legally binding in the same way that ICJ arbitration typically works, but such a report would carry a significant amount of moral authority and would help to frame the next round of negotiations for a course of action to stem the tide of climate change. The ICJ is a reputable intergovernmental organization and many countries around the world will take its advice seriously.
These nations will lose sovereign control of their territory through no fault of their own and hundreds of thousands of people face the loss of their very livelihoods should the international community fail to act against climate change. Though the request for assistance remains urgent, only time will tell if the United Nations will heed the call of Palau, the Marshall Islands and many other countries to guard against violations of sovereignty and human rights, issues at the very core of the United Nations itself.