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University News

Talk explores uncertain fates of drowning islands

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2012


What will happen to the citizens of a modern-day Atlantis, a country that will be submerged completely as ocean levels rise due to global warming? Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, discussed the fate of drowning island nations yesterday at the Joukowsky Forum of the Watson Institute for International Studies.

Gerrard focused on the Marshall Islands, a series of atoll islands halfway between Australia and Hawaii that scarcely break the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Formed by the growth of coral reefs on top of long-extinct and sunken ocean-floor volcanoes, each island is a low-lying and narrow strip of land encircling a large lagoon.

Because of the small size and remoteness of the islands, in the event of a tsunami the only option is to “tie yourself to a coconut tree” to avoid floating away, Gerrard said. All joking aside, the main population center of the island of Majuro is 10 feet above sea level, while the very highest peak on the Marshall Islands is only 33 feet above sea level. Even modest increases in the tide will make these islands unlivable and will eventually submerge them completely, Gerrard said.

The fate of the Marshall Islands and other similar nations raises legal questions about the existence of a government and citizens with no land, he said. It is also unclear what will happen to the islands’ fishing, mineral and other rights, he said.

Gerrard predicted that in the future, adverse climate conditions will force people to migrate to more livable locales within their country – “but with the island nations, there’s no such thing as internal displacement,” he said.

Where do the people go? It is at least feasible to imagine a diaspora of the 60,000 Marshall Islands inhabitants, or even the several hundred thousand inhabitants of all endangered island chains, he said. But a disaster of epic proportions would ensue if millions of people in a densely populated country like Bangladesh had to evacuate for climate-related reasons, he said.

Gerard also spoke of the tenuous relationship between the Marshall Islands and the United States. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted its outdoor nuclear testing on the Marshall Islands. Testing was so frequent that “people could go out and watch the nuclear bombs explode,” he said, and there continue to be concerns about health problems associated with the nuclear tests.

Gerrard said that in 1988, Congress created a nuclear claims tribunal and awarded the Marshall Islands $2 billion in damages but ultimately did not pay out the promised amount, Gerrard said. He added that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions disproportionately contribute to rising sea levels – an issue that he contended raises the question of what large industrial nations owe such small island nations.

Gerrard stressed the familiar effects of global warming, including rising temperatures, increasing carbon dioxide levels and a higher incidence of disastrous weather events.

Curbing the problem lies in the adoption of stricter regulations for greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, Gerrard said, adding that the most effective way of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is increasing energy efficiency. The U.S. should especially be focusing on the issue since “1990 is the last time Congress has passed a major environmental statute,” referencing the amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1970, he said.

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