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Staying Alive, Staying Alive

Staying Alive, Staying Alive

The old disco song has a special meaning to island nations. The Republic of the Marshall Islands is comprised of five Pacific Ocean islands and 29 atolls which together have a mean elevation of about two meters, with 33 feet above sea level being the whole nation’s highest elevation. Sea levels are rising as a result of melting polar ice sheets and warmer temperatures expanding ocean water, and credible scientists estimate that overall sea levels may increase two meters this century if we continue doing as we have been doing. This is especially bad news for the Marshall islands and other low-lying island nations, and they have responded to the dangers.

Small island nations have banded together in The Alliance of Small Island States and have consistently pushed the rest of the world to take strong actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In the 1980s, the alliance pushed negotiations which led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in the 1990s successfully lobbied for provisions that were incorporated in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. According to an article in the American Bar Association’s March 2012 Journal titled “Washed Away: As Sea Levels Rise, Island Nations Look to the Law to Fend Off Extinction,” those island states are considering asking international tribunals, such as the International Court of Justice, for legal protection against damage from emissions produced by other countries.

As a lawyer, I see no chance of any effective legal remedy for small nations that lack economic and political power, despite the emotional appeal of the argument, as one Republic of the Maldives resident put it, that island nations “cannot be and should not be sacrificed on the altar of the good life for the rest of the world.” What I find encouraging is further demonstration that people respond aggressively to environmental threats to their survival, even when the threat is primarily to the survival of their cultures and nations. Island residents have organized to protect their land, even though most people assume that the world will find a way to relocate them from sinking islands if their countries do become uninhabitable.

The warning bells are sounding for the rest of us, but less loudly than for the island nations. A 2009 beach erosion report for America’s east coast issued by the EPA and other federal agencies  predicted that a sea level rise of two feet, a conservative estimate for this century, would cause North Carolina’s celebrated Outer Banks to begin to break up.  Money talks, and North Carolina coast tourism is a $2.6 billion, 50,000 job industry. Decision makers listen, and a panel convened by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission reported in 2010 that a sea level rise of about three feet was likely by 2100 and should be factored in for policy and planning purposes.  That probably means trying to move the tourist industry more inland, which should be easier for North Carolina than for the Marshall Islands.

Update: There is a front page headline in the March 14, 2012 New York Times – “Sea Level Rise Seen as Threat to 3.7 Million” – Americans, with Florida being “By far the most vulnerable state.”

Photo: Nevit Dilmen

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Comments (1)

  1. Kathy Miller Thursday - 08 / 03 / 2012
    Just devastating.

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