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Climate Change’s Effects on Small Island States and Climate-Displaced People

“While nations have been absorbed by other nations or split off to form new ones in the past, never before has a country literally disappeared.
-Rachel Nuwer, 2015

As this summer’s McCain Institute Global Leadership Initiatives intern, I assist with the McCain Global Leaders program, a fellowship of approximately 25 individuals from around the world who are serving a cause greater than themselves. One of the things I love most about this program is that the McCain Institute does not seek what we may think of as a “typical” candidate. The 2022 MGL cohort consists of many inspiring individuals who work in government, or Parliament, or in Haiti’s Prime Minister’s office. There are also participants who have been and currently are federal judges, directors of organizations that protect people in poverty from violence and who advocate for fair elections, high school teachers, military and aid doctors.

Participants for the McCain Global Leaders program are recruited from four regions of the world: the Western Hemisphere, Africa/MENA, Asia/Oceania and Europe/Eurasia. Each year, the regional theme changes.

This year, the themes are:

  • Western Hemisphere: Migration: Approaches to Root Causes, Instability and Support to Displaced Populations
  • Europe and Eurasia: Defending Democracy by Preventing Disinformation and Extremism
  • Africa and MENA: Providing Peace and Security through Understanding and Reconciliation
  • Asia and Oceania: Sustainability and Environmentalism in Support of Stability, Security and Human Rights

A quick side note: This past spring, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in London, England, where I took politics and sociology courses. One course I took was International Security with an amazing professor. We learned different aspects of what security is and asked ourselves whether national, international, or human security is more important. What I found most intriguing was our lesson on the security threats from climate change. I decided to write a research paper this summer about how climate change currently does, and will, affect many small island states. I will focus on mainly Kiribati and Tuvalu and the ways in which these two island states are affected will be similar to many of the other island states.

While piecing together my internship,  the regional themes of the MGL program, my research paper, and my own interest in educating others, I wanted to write this blog not just about the broad security effects from climate change, but also about climate-displaced people. This topic fits with the Western Hemisphere’s theme due to climate-displaced people who do and will need support from others; Europe’s theme fits because there is much disinformation when it comes to climate change; Africa and MENA’s theme fits because human, national, and international security will be threatened if we don’t try to combat the effects of climate change on small island states like those in the Pacific; and Asia and Oceania’s theme encompasses all of what I just referenced. There will be an increase in conflicts over the most basic resources, food and water if bigger nations do not look into laws that govern what a state is and what a refugee is. I feel like many people who do believe in the anthropogenic drivers of climate change have not learned about or grasped the dire need to address climate change effects, first, on small island states, then later, on the whole world.

Anthropogenic drivers of climate change result in higher greenhouse gas emissions, which increase the global average temperature, which, along with many things, raises sea levels. This rise in sea levels is erasing entire states. When you first hear that, you probably get that small island states being submerged by rising sea levels is obviously wrong, but it is way more complex than you might think.

The 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States laid out the key formal characteristics of statehood. Article 1 states that the criteria to be considered a state are: land, a permanent population, a government, and international recognition. Without these four things, a country would technically lose its statehood under international law. This Convention did not consider that whole statehoods are disappearing due to climate change. International law assumed territories would always be present because they were usually “lost” due to changes in governance (conquest, merger, etc.). Small island states are already building artificial islands, building houses piled above the sea, getting a form of placeholder construction (e.g. a lighthouse), merging with another state, or some “deterritorialized statehood.” Some small island states are even purchasing small pieces of land from other nations. For example, Kiribati bought some land from Fiji to “prepare to move their citizens and prepare for the loss of their identity” (Ker-Lindsay, 2016).

So, what will happen to these entire nations that become submerged in water due to climate change? Will international communities cease to recognize them since they will not have statehood according to the Montevideo Convention? If so, what happens to their membership in international organizations? Or, will states still recognize them, since they were once granted recognition?

What happens to the citizens or “climate-displaced people?” Because of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, these displaced people are not considered refugees because they are not being persecuted based on their religion, race, etc. The fate of climate-displaced citizens is complex because there is no international agreement on what will happen to climate-displaced people and because many influential countries are not being forced yet to think about these issues. Since they are not considered refugees, they do not get refugee rights. Last November, a New Zealand judge rejected claims from a Kiribati citizen to be granted refugee status because they “were not being persecuted” and therefore, “could not claim to be a refugee.” This brings into question, will they get new citizenship? Will they be rendered stateless? Will their passports cease to be recognized? There is something called “Migration with Dignity,” a plan put in place by Kiribati’s president, which Australia and New Zealand support. Basically, these displaced individuals will gain special training and skills in these countries, so when and if the time comes to migrate permanently, “They will do so on merit rather than as a helpless refugee.” Suppose the international community does not create new international laws or even alter what a refugee officially is. In that case, social unrest is possible in these communities, which will negatively affect human, national, and international security.

I urge you to read my professor’s piece about this grave issue that Americans are not yet forced to think about:

Yes, our coastal islands around our country will be submerged in water. However, we have many states that citizens can move to. Even when hurricanes strike us (Americans), people can seek refuge inland. During Hurricane Matthew and a few others, I had to evacuate where I lived because my island was not high enough above sea level. I have had to seek refuge in a totally different state. However, even if my island or the whole state of South Carolina ceased to exist due to the rising sea levels, I would not be rendered stateless. I would likely move to a different state and still have my American passport and identity. I would not have to worry about living in a foreign country or my new rights.

These small island states do not have this luxury. They produce the least greenhouse gas emissions yet are the most vulnerable to its effects. Moreover, they are regionally more isolated than other nations and do not have the luxury to “just move” from climate change’s effects.

So, I’ll leave this blog with two questions that, hopefully, we will see answered, but not soon enough:

How will the international community respond to climate change effects on small island states, and how will we deal with climate-displaced people in the years to come?

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Liana Hutton, Global Leadership Initiatives Intern
Publish Date
August 3, 2022