Loss of Small Island States Would Drive New Definitions of Nationhood
The harsh, likely immutable reality that sea level rise will wipe some small island states off the map is prompting some academics and political leaders to rethink the very meaning of a nation-state.
“A nation ending entirely, with no successor, might be a wholly new event in human history,” the Washington Post notes. “Historically, countries are not physically destroyed; they simply become other countries, the land they occupy controlled by someone else.”
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But until now, at minimum, the assumption has been that “a country needs a government, a population, and a piece of real estate within a defined territory—the boot of Italy, the hanging triangle of India, the narrow strip of Chile. The shape of a nation has long been defined by two kinds of lines: the borders that separate it from other countries and the coasts that separate it from the sea.”
But while “we may understand why political borders are subject to change,” the paper adds, “in an era of rising seas and increasingly extreme weather and natural disasters, we have to get used to the fact that coastal boundaries can’t be taken for granted, either. Indeed, our land-water borders are changing quickly and significantly, and in ways that will probably never be reversed.”
That’s true for any country with a coast, but nowhere more than for island states like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands that have brought some of the greatest sense of urgency to international discussions leading up to the adoption, and now the implementation, of the Paris Agreement. “The results of sea level rise and increasing storm surge threaten the very existence and livelihoods of large segments of the population,” Kiribati stated in a 2015 submission to the United Nations. “By 2050, 18 to 80% of the land in Buariki, North Tarawa, and up to 50% of the land in Bikenibeu, South Tarawa could become inundated.”
Against that reality, Kiribati has already adopted an extreme measure: in 2014, the country bought an eight-square-mile stretch of the Fijiian island of Vanua Levu, as a possible future home for its population of 110,000. “We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land,” then-president Anote Tong said at the time. “But if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it,” and odds are that day will come.
“The science is pretty clear: zero emissions, we’ll still go underwater,” Tong told reporter Joshua Keating. “Unless some drastic work is undertaken, there will be no option. That’s the reality. It’s not a hope. It’s not a desire. It’s the brutal reality.”
“Climate change really put us back on the world map. The irony is that we’re being erased from the world map,” said Secretary of Foreign Affairs Akka Rimon, during Keating’s most recent visit to Kiribati. “We don’t have the answer. There doesn’t seem to be any entity that looks after that. Sovereignty exists within the borders of your nation, but what happens when that changes? Nobody has the answer.”
In response, “environmental law scholars have begun to discuss the notion of ‘ex-situ nationhood,’ under which governments, with some financial support from the international community, would continue to represent their populations on an international level at bodies like the United Nations, without any connection to a physical territory,” Keating writes. Some models would allow residents to “retain some rights as citizens, even as they dispersed around the globe.”
Some academics are looking at models like the Sovereign Order of Malta that date back before the modern nation-state, to an era “when sovereignty was tied more closely to ruling families or dynasties than to territories with fixed locations.”
Which means that, “if the vanishing countries of the future are to survive in any form, they’re likely to look less like contemporary nation-states and more like the Knights of Malta or medieval Burgundy, political creations set up to represent a group of people and their political interests, who will be increasingly dispersed geographically and culturally.”
Keating says he was taken aback at what he heard from locals on Kiribati, some of whom had been interviewed up to five times by reporters writing about their country’s imminent demise.
“I came to Kiribati expecting to find a place planning for its own destruction, but instead I found something more dispiriting: a place that, with a few exceptions, wasn’t even contemplating that destruction,” he writes. “The mental block that prohibits thinking about what will happen when the islands are no longer inhabitable seems to be a major impediment to planning for that eventuality. In this regard, too, Kiribati is a microcosm of the world’s unwillingness to face the reality of the future. A nation disappearing off the map is something that’s never happened before and, so far, is something people seem unable to imagine.”