Research News

Threatened Island Nations Conference

2011-08-02

From May 23rd to 25th, the Center for Climate Change Law (CCCL) held a conference titled Legal Issues Faced by Threatened Island Nations. The 272 registrants came from 39 different countries including 43 from the Pacific Island region; 45 from Australia, the rest of Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Africa; 24 from Europe; and 18 from the Caribbean and Latin America. An additional 308 people registered for the live webcast, and many people are now viewing the video of the conference on the CCCL website.

The conference featured an unusual combination of presentations by legal scholars from around the world and talks by ambassadors and other national representatives, including the Attorney General of Micronesia. These diverse participants were brought together through funding from the Earth Institute, the World Bank, and the governments of Australia, South Korea and Israel. Several Earth Institute scientists gave talks about sea level rise projections and climate adaptation options.

Michael Gerrard, director of the CCCL, and John Silk, foreign minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, each provided opening remarks at the introductory session on May 23rd, followed by Mary Elena Carr of the Earth Institute who set the stage for the conference with an overview of the current science of climate change and sea level rise. Topics for lectures over the course of the three-day conference included statehood and statelessness, preserving marine rights: fishing and minerals, resettlement and migration issues, engineering for the future, and law and policy choices. Though climate change mitigation was discussed, the primary focus of the conference was climate adaptation. The general consensus at the conclusion of the conference was that there must be a renewed sense of urgency to the issue of climate change, and that while there are differing implications for various parts of the world, climate change is a global challenge that must be addressed by comprehensive, global solutions that address issues at multiple levels.

A high point of the conference came during the formal conference dinner in the rotunda of Low Library. The Marshall Islands delegation, 23 strong, mounted the stage and sang a series of their nation's songs in Marshallese, led by President Zedkaia on the ukulele. This highlighted the culture that could be lost if we do not solve the climate problem. The Marshallese representatives, who requested the help of the CCCL with the problem of climate adaptation, were thrilled with the conference and the worldwide attention it brought to their plight.

The conference was widely considered a success by organizers and participants. Philip Muller, ambassador and permanent representative of the Republic of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations, says, “In the subsequent weeks, I have received many positive comments from my colleagues both from other small island nations and also within the wider UN community. Our conference was truly innovative in allowing for informal and creative interaction between academic and political spheres. In reflection, I know that many of the sensitive issues raised at the conference are ‘new territory’ for the international community, and their initial discussion is only possible through the type of creative space demonstrated at our conference. This conference has been a landmark step in forging new issues on the evolution of international law.”

The Center for Climate Change Law is following up on the Threatened Island Nations Conference in a number of ways, including editing a book of proceedings and looking into possible revisions to the Internal Displacement Guidelines to reflect populations displaced by climate change. The conference yielded specific proposals on how island nations can use certain provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to fix their maritime boundaries despite sea level rise. The Center plans to move these proposals forward. They will also be using the lists of in-person and webcast registrants to forge a worldwide network of people interested in these issues. Furthermore, personal connections were made among the scholars who work on similar issues but had never met in person before this conference. Building these types of networks is crucial to advancing complex issues of this nature.

Finally, the informal discussions among national representatives at the conference became an important part of the preparations for a debate on the security implications of climate change that the UN Security Council held on July 20th. The debate led to a council statement that, for the first time, linked climate change to international peace and security. The statement read by Ambassador Peter Wittig of Germany, who holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month, noted, “the Security Council expresses its concern that possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security. The Security Council expresses its concern that possible security implications of loss of territory of some States caused by sea-level-rise may arise, in particular in small low-lying island states.”