If a country sinks beneath the sea, is it still a country? That is a question about which the Republic of the Marshall Islands — a Micronesian nation of 29 low-lying coral atolls — is now seeking expert legal advice. It is also a question the United States Senate might ask itself the next time it refuses to deal with climate change.
According to the world’s leading scientists, sea-level rise is one of the greatest dangers of global warming, threatening not only islands but coastal cities like New Orleans and even entire countries like Bangladesh.
In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conservatively predicted a 20-inch sea-level rise by the end of this century if current trends were not reversed. Because of various uncertainties, its calculations excluded the melting of the Greenland and West Antarctica ice sheets. Some academic studies have suggested that rises of four to seven feet are not out of the question.
Officials in the Marshall Islands — where a 20-inch rise would drown at least one atoll — are not only thinking about the possibility of having to move entire populations but are entertaining even more existential questions: If its people have to abandon the islands, what citizenship can they claim? Will the country still have a seat at the United Nations? Who owns its fishing rights and offshore mineral resources?
Marshall Islands leaders have asked Michael Gerrard, an expert on climate change law at Columbia University, to help them find answers to what he regards as plausible questions. He further notes that an island can become uninhabitable before the sea level rises above it, because even moderate storms can swamp any agricultural land and render freshwater supplies undrinkable.
All of this reminds us of an astonishing remark last month by Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri. When asked why she saw no immediate need to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill, she said, “You know, it took 50 years on health care.” If only the earth could wait that long.