Sovereignty of islands at risk due to oceans and climate – IPCC Report

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APIA: The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Monaco indicates for the first time from the scientific body the risks of rising seal-levels to the state sovereignty of Pacific nations.

“More than 80% of small island residents live near the coast where flooding and coastal erosion already pose serious problems and since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) and the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR1.5), there is consensus on the increasing threats to island sustainability in terms of land, soils and freshwater availability,” the report states.

“As a result, there is growing concern that some island nations as a whole may become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels and climate change, with implications for relocation, sovereignty and statehood.”

The mention of state sovereignty implications of climate change in the IPCC report is a significant nod to the legal implications of oceans and climate change on the statehood of islands from the leading scientific body on climate change.

The Report notes that recent studies estimate some atoll islands to become uninhabitable before the middle of the 21st century due to the exacerbation of wave-driven flooding by sea level rise, compromising soil fertility and the integrity of freshwater lenses.

The IPCC reported with high confidence that atoll islands are not ‘static landforms’ and they experience both erosion and accretion of land.

The greatest loss to islands according to previous research will occur when islands are unable to support life and become uninhabitable. A permanent population is a criteria for becoming a state under the Montevideo Convention – and when Pacific islands are unable to sustain life, statehood therefore is at risk.

“In the Solomon Islands, where rates of sea level rise exceed the global average at 7–10 mm per year, a study of 33 reef islands showed five vegetated islands had disappeared and six islands were concerned with severe shoreline erosion. In Micronesia, a study showed the disappearance of several reef islands, severe erosion in leeward reef edge islands and coastal expansion in mangrove areas.”

According to the IPCC it has been argued that the capacity of some atoll islands to maintain their land area by naturally adjusting to sea level rise could be reduced in the coming decades.

“Indeed, the projected combination of higher rates of sea level rise, increased wave energy, changes in storm wave direction, as well as the impacts of ocean warming and acidification on the reef system, is expected to shift the balance towards more frequent flooding and increased erosion.”

The issue of loss of statehood as an implication of climate change has not been specifically addressed under relevant conventions on climate, law of the sea and refugees. The IPCC mention of the issue elevates the aspect of state sovereignty of islands from a scientific lenses.

*Lagipoiva was an expert reviewer for the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. 

This article was originally published in the Samoa Observer.

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