by Judith Curry
The Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia Law School and the Republic of the Marshall Islands recently co-sponsored a conference on “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of a Changing Climate.”
Columbia’s Law School Climate Law Blog has a comprehensive summary of the conference, separated into 3 posts for each of the three days of the conference.
Jacob Werksman of the World Resources Institute opened the discussion charting the history of legal remedies pursued thus far in regards to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Drawing upon international customary and treaty law, Werksman focused on the legal actions that can be taken to obligate countries such as the United States to do their due diligence in reducing emissions.
Professor Brad Blitz of Kingston University London began by asking the question why people migrate in the first place. He explained that migration decisions are typically based on partial information and projected outcomes. Blitz emphasized that how people evaluate risks depends on resources, perceptions of the threat, and options; livelihoods above all encourages people to migrate meaning that there must be some trigger.
Bronen advocated for the use of the term “climigration” to describe climate change-induced migration to differentiate it from other conventional forms of migration. She defined climigration as “permanent community relocation due to on-going ecological change, caused by repeated extreme weather events and on-going ecological change.” She stressed that it should be a part of human rights doctrine that communities that are being relocated are given autonomy over the methods of relocation. She described this to be a “dynamic adaptive governance process.” Bronen went on to delineate macro and micro-level strategies in resettlement, arguing that we must be more concerned with the micro picture if we are to be successful. During the Q&A session, a representative from Bangladesh voiced strong agreement with Bonen’s micro-approach to migration, illustrating the issues that Bangladeshis currently face. A 45 minute discussion followed exploring the details of the panelists’ resettlement strategies and raising the very real resistance of local communities to resettlement planning.
The third session of the conference today pitted advocates, Professor Michel Pieur (Centre International de Droit) and Professor David Hodgkinson (University of Western Australia), advocating for a new international framework convention to protect the victims of climate change, against Professor Jane McAdam (University of New South Wales). Pieur and Hodgkinson were mainly in agreement over the reasons for why such a convention should be created. They both argued that current refugee provisions were inadequate in dealing with the unique circumstance posed by climate change and that current conventions only deal with individual rights, not collective rights which would be necessary for persons displaced by climate change. Furthermore, Pieur stressed that the non-binding nature of current legal protections made the need for a binding convention all the more important.
McAdam’s response started on the note that a “one-size-fits-all” approach cannot be expected to work. She differentiated between climate change-induced scenarios as forcing rapid movement and slow movement. Building on these initial statements, her main arguments against a new international convention were: 1) that treaty proposals are premised on unproven assumptions on climate change; 2) that suggesting climate change alone causes movement is problematic; 3) that political appetite for such a proposition is absent; and 4) that focusing on a treaty may obscure other approaches that better align with the needs of displaced persons. She then drew on her fieldwork from Bangladesh and the Pacific Islands to claim that most movement is internal and climate change tends to multiply preexisting stresses rather than causing movement of its own. Capitalizing on previously made causality arguments, McAdams said that a climate change convention would struggle in proving the impacts of climate change.
The Q&A session afterwards involved several questions from both sides of the issue. Among the issues raised in support of a convention were that the particular focus on this issue would allow the issue particular attention from the international community. Among the arguments against were a questioning of the distinction between helping people facing difficult living situations due to climate-related displacement, versus those facing the same difficult living situations due to economic or other problems. What basis, it was asked, is there to distinguish between people in need of aid? The response to this argument focused on the unique responsibility of the developed world for climate-displaced peoples, that may impose an additional responsibility.
The last day of the conference began with a panel that analyzed the adaptation needs and strategies for threatened islands. Professor Klaus Jacob of Columbia University presented a risk assessment model using the variables of hazards, assets, and vulnerability. He outlined two approaches to the model: 1) using loss estimates for scenario storms, waves, ties, and relative flooding; and 2) using annualized flood losses as a function of sea level rise. The conclusion of his research predicted that the population density in the Majuro Atoll would need to be reduced by the time that sea level rise exceeds 0.3-0.5m.
Albon Ishoda, the Executive Director of the Marshall Islands Conservation Society, stressed that there cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” approach to adaptation because each atoll has different geographic characteristics that cause its vulnerability to sea level rise and climate change to vary. He explained the community-based process that his group has been pursuing, emphasizing that social factors cannot be ignored. He also highlighted the two challenges to this approach: difficulties associated with translating the scientific and legal language to a more accessible form for the locals; and the need to garner the necessary funding and assistance to launch adaptation projects. He added that even the meager funding that is provided unfortunately largely comes with stipulations, which do not necessarily benefit the local communities.
Professor Gerrard continued the conversation putting the urgency for action into perspective. He asserted that the larger threat in the near future is extreme weather events and that perils to statehood are not imminent. He stressed that legal remedies may not be necessary and that political action could certainly serve as a solution. He endorsed the use of bilateral and regional agreements to deal with issues of migration and resettlement until an international agreement is made, if one is necessary.
At least here in the U.S., lawyers (and I am one of them) are trained to respond to individual, not systemic, problems. As a legal community comprised of litigators, judges, professors, elected officials, etc., lawyers aren’t proving deft enough at applying the kind of complex calculus capable of rendering climate-displaced communities justice. Perhaps the first realization worth articulating is the value of knowing our limitations. How might the law fail here? How might we—as lawyers—fail here? What other solutions might we be ignoring by focusing so heavily on the law?
Persistence of atoll islands under sea level rise
A concise readable summary of the issue of sea level rise and atoll islands is provided by this report by Climate Analytics. From the Summary:
Reports of a recent study showing that 43% of 27 central-Pacific Atoll islands have grwon in net area over recent decades, with only 145 of these studied islands decreasing in net land area, have led to claims that risks to these islands from projected sea slevel rise due to global warming have been overstated.
“While the islands are coping for now, any acceleration in the rate of sea0level rise could overtake the sediment build up” (New Scientist, 2 June 2010).”
Give the persistence of Atoll islands in the Holocene during periods of sea level variations at rates not very different from those observed in recent deades, it is to be expected that these islands can respond dynamically to limited sea level rise and fall. However, the dynamics of atoll islands formation and persistence depends strongly on local conditions and morphology, as well as anthropogenic influence on shorelines, including infrastructure. Hence net increases in area may not correspond to enhancement of present resources and could also be associated with significant loss of useable area.
More importantly, acceleration of sea level rise is expected due to global warming. Recent estimates of the rate of sea level rise by 2050 and 2100 are a factor of five higher than the observed rate over the study period. These expected rates of rise are about ten times higher than those found in reconstructions of sea level over the Holocene in periods were atoll islands are known to have formed and persisted in the long term.
JC comments: Threatened island nations have often been used as poster children for dangerous AGW. Issues facing island nations are complex mash of geophysical and societal factors. Tying AGW and sea level rise to the current problems facing the island nations is not at all straightforward. Trying to fix the problems of island nations by reducing CO2 emissions would probably be ineffective, even if stabilization targets are met. Extensive societal development on atoll islands is associated with risks from extreme weather events and the geodynamics of the atoll itself. In the face of this geophysical vulnerability, there are some potentially thorny political, legal and social justice issues associated with challenges facing the island nations. The dynamics of the Threatened Island Nations Conference provided some interesting insights into the challenges of demonstrating and dealing with dangerous AGW.