There’s an interesting debate brewing at the intersection of global climate change and international law. Historically, the idea of national sovereignty was based on the territorial integrity of the nation-state [glossary]. That is, the idea of statehood was defined, in part, by the physical territory in which the state exists.
But what happens if that territory disappears? This question is being asked by several small, low-lying island states fearing that their territory may become uninhabitable—or indeed disappear altogether—as ocean levels rise as a result of global climate change.
The law in this area is unclear. While the breakup of countries like Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union provides precedent for the breakup of existing countries, there is no precedent for the physical disappearance of a country. The government of the Marshall Islands is asking precisely this question.
And even if the country doesn’t disappear, it may become uninhabitable. Already, countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati are suffering from increasing salinization of groundwater supplies, as ocean water seeps into wells. If the islands become uninhabitable, what would happen to the citizens of those countries? Would they become a stateless population? Would they continue to have citizenship in a country that no longer exists?
And what about the economic rights of statehood. Under current international law, states possess extensive rights over territorial waters, which can be rich fishing grounds and home to other valuable resources. What happens if the islands from which the territorial waters are measured disappears?
There are many interesting questions but few real answers.