In the next 30-50 years, comfortably within the span of the current generation, rising tides will sink a number of island nations, endangering the lives of thousands upon thousands of citizens. In the example of the Southern Pacific island of Nauru, the earth’s steadily increasing temperature has caused the sea level to rise to people’s doorsteps, threatening to consume the Nauruan coastline. And although its highest point is 200 feet above sea level, virtually all of the Nauruan population lives along the low-lying coast due to the country’s uninhabitable interior, ravaged by years of phosphate mining. The usual statistics that describe global warming’s devastating effects on low-lying nations give a number that is fractional and of little consequence; or, even worse, tell of an effect so far down the line that it seems unnecessary to current discussions. But as the frantic government measures of Nauru’s Foreign Minister, Kieren Keke, suggest, these conditions and threats can no longer be simply ignored.
The issue sets off a cascade of unanswered questions and dilemmas. Mainly, the looming diplomatic challenge of accommodating the disappearance or the uninhabitability of a nation brings with it the complications of moving entire populations to surrounding countries, requiring international agreements that account for shifting citizenship, immigration influx, and cultural changes. In some regards, the problem is purely logistical: the processes that must accompany the erasure of a nation, such as the reduction of UN members or the movement of homes and property from one place to another, are complex and must be handled smoothly. But there are also more abstract complications, including the possible erosion of entire cultures and identities.
Last year, Forbes reported that the nearby Solomon Islands—a massive archipelago of more than 1,100 atolls—is similarly “approaching extinction” as waves climb higher and higher each day. The same goes for Kiribati and the Maldives, whose presidents and officials have called urgently for relocation of coastline inhabitants and looked to prepare for the emigration of their populations. And while there are other small ocean nations that remain existentially threatened by the global warming phenomenon, larger nations like Egypt and Bangladesh, though in no position to find themselves entirely under the sea, are highly susceptible to any type of sea level change, and as many as 40 million citizens worldwide could be displaced by 2040. The problem, however, of internal displacement by no means eclipses the question of the removal of an entire internationally-recognized state, as well as the additional amnesty concerns that come with the emigration of an entire population.
But more importantly, the situation brings up a flurry of different international questions, highlighting the dynamic between larger and smaller nations at the negotiating table.
Marshall Islands, Nauru, and other threatened nations have already joined together in a coalition to ask the International Court of Justice to appropriate their demands. Perhaps what is most perplexing is figuring out who foots the bill of moving threatened populaces and recovering lost capital and homes. A central idea, one that drives the sinking nations’ coalition, remains: that nations that largely contribute to climate change and rising sea levels like the United States and China are inherently responsible and thus are obligated to cover for those nations threatened by emissions. And surely, they will have a lot to do to ensure the safety and well-being of the people they’ve endangered.
While a lot has been discussed regarding who is to blame, not much has actually been speculated as to what the situation will look like in half a century. The concrete methods by which these emigrants will leave is still up in the air. Some nations, tired of waiting for a multilateral solution, have taken the mission upon themselves.
Kiribati has proceeded with a land deal with Fiji that will allocate areas for inhabitants required to relocate, while leaders in the Maldives have instead looked to constructing artificial islands in an attempt to slow down the natural rising of the tide and to boost tourism for the small nation.
Most threatened nations, however, are haunted by the possibility that their tiny populations of culturally unique inhabitants will fall through the cracks, a terrible but understandable side effect of the hegemonic international dialogue we have today.
And if larger states proximally close to sinking nations do in fact decide to assist them – most clearly seen in Australia and its relationship with the smattering of nearby atolls – there is much more to consider.
How will inhabitants get from one nation to the other? What policies will govern this process, and what can host countries do to more readily integrate peoples who have been intrinsically isolated for centuries? Possible routes of redress include assisted amnesty, staggered immigration quotas in the years leading up to full evacuation of sinking nations, and land annexation of the host country, in an attempt to replicate and preserve a threatened culture.
But all of these methods will require an exceptionally rigorous amount of problem-solving and, more importantly, continuous dialogue: in order to embark on such large projects of inter-state crowd control, leaders and activists must stop seeing this problem as a futuristic one and treat it as an imminent destiny, for which all must prepare.
What is most troubling is the possibility that, in large-scale operations, populations are homogenized and considered uniform, largely for the sake of convenience. Historical and cultural precedence is ignored, and island cultures, which have developed largely in a vacuum from other ways of life, are under threat of being washed away by the ebb and flow of the rising sea.
There is much speculation about how such proceedings will progress, but one thing is certain: the international community must address this problem soon, and those reading this will also be the ones witnessing such a groundbreaking event.
No longer can we put something like this off and discount is as opinionated conjecture.