State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Law of Drowning Nations

Gerrard BookSea levels are inching up year by year, and by various projections could be two to six feet higher by 2100—enough to make some small, low-lying island nations uninhabitable, or simply to wipe them off the map. What rights will citizens have to live elsewhere; in fact, will these entities actually still be nations, with valid passports, seats in the United Nations, territorial fishing rights, and other proofs of existence? These and other troubling questions are explored in a new book, Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate.

The book is a collection of 17 essays by experts at universities, law firms and NGOs in a half dozen countries and the UN. Edited by Michael Gerrard, director of the Columbia Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law and former deputy director Gregory Wannier, it grew out of a 2011 conference at Columbia that brought leaders of threatened countries together with authorities in various branches of law. It is probably the first to systematically examine the legal upshot of sea-level rise on island states.

Among the issues: If lands disappear, what becomes of their exclusive economic zone, the basis of mineral as well as fishing rights? What obligations, if any do other nations have for displaced populations, and what those peoples’ legal status if they resettle in a new country? Can displaced people sue for compensation; and if so, who would they sue, and where?

“The island nations contributed almost nothing to the climate change problem, but they are among its greatest victims,” Gerrard says in a press release from the Law School. “The law is only beginnning to address this profound injustice.”

The nations most threatened, such as the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, are mainly in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Wannier (now a federal judicial clerk) said, “Many of the questions addressed in the book address unresolved areas of international law, which could remain unresolved for years or even decades. As a result, the process of assembling this book and working with the authors to present their ideas has been particularly interesting. [They] will likely influence the eventual resolution of these questions, with real-life consequences for entire nations of people.”

The book is published by Cambridge University Press.




Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments