Sea level rise: Legal implications for island states

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We are all aware that the climate is changing and the extraordinary impact this is having on nations and their policy considerations is clear. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, predicts that the global mean sea level will continue to rise over the 21st century. Even under large net negative CO2 emissions, it would take several centuries or more for global mean sea level to reverse course. What this means for coastal nations around the world is also well known by now – increased flooding, storm surges, salinization, and land loss. 

No countries will experience these impacts more dramatically than Pacific Island states.  And among them, low-lying atoll countries are at the most extreme risk – facing land loss, the inundation of islands, existential questions about access to vital resources, and even the possibility of becoming wholly uninhabitable. 

And it is now clear that we cannot simply engineer a way out of this. Conventional adaptation options – such as climate-proofing infrastructure, constructing seawalls and supporting natural mangrove ecosystems – are all important for the success of short- and medium-term adaptation, however they will not be sufficient in the long-term and in the face of already rising seas. 

"The pace and nature of change is unprecedented; and with this comes unprecedented legal and policy considerations. It is with this in mind that the World Bank’s new report, Legal Dimensions of Sea Level Rise: Pacific Perspectives, was produced."


The pace and nature of change is unprecedented; and with this comes unprecedented legal and policy considerations. It is with this in mind that the World Bank’s new report, Legal Dimensions of Sea Level Rise: Pacific Perspectives, was produced. 

In writing the Legal Dimensions of Sea Level Rise report, we aimed to address critical questions for policymakers such as:

Building on an earlier World Bank Working Paper on the Maritime Right of Coastal States, the report aims to address these and other unprecedented legal and policy questions, and presents the latest developments in relevant international law.

Our research found that while there exists a range of legal and policy tools that island states could use to protect their maritime entitlements, addressing sea level rise impacts will also require re-examination of the current paradigms of international law.

For example, the question of how measurements that determine territorial rights and rights of resource access are approached is a significant one. As highlighted in the report, the wording of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea allows for two different interpretations to determine the baseline of a country’s territory – one of which would ‘fix’ these measurements, and the other would shift as coastlines shift, and as a result, would change as sea levels rise. Issues such as these play a crucial role in determining a state’s maritime claims and borders and may ultimately determine a state’s survival.

The Pacific region has long spearheaded policy action in this field. Most recently, the above question was directly considered when the Members of the Pacific Island Forum endorsed the Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea Level Rise in August this year. 
This is just one example of where we believe this research will be important in driving a conversation that will ultimately protect the rights, resources and even ongoing survival of the states most at risk. At the global level, research like this will be valuable in key negotiations such as the upcoming COP26. 

Those interested in the legal and existential challenges sea level rise poses to coastal, small island and atoll states will likely find value in the report. The issues are wide ranging and vitally important, covering maritime zones, resources access, human mobility and resilience building. And as we move towards COP26, we hope the Legal Dimensions of Sea Level Rise report proves useful to those doing the important work of determining future policy in the face of this threat.

The report "Legal Dimensions of Sea Level Rise: Pacific Perspective" authored by David Freestone and Duygu Cicek was prepared as a collaboration between the Environment and International Law Practice Group (LEGEN) and the Building Resilience in Pacific Atoll Island Countries Study task team (GPURL) with financing from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR).


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