Climate Change and Island Nations

I get most of my news from Yahoo.  What can I say? I’m not a big news reader, and yahoo lets me quickly pick and choose what I want to read about.

This morning, I found this on Yahoo:

If An Island State Vanishes, is it still a Nation?

CANCUN, Mexico – Encroaching seas in the far Pacific are raising the salt level in the wells of the Marshall Islands. Waves threaten to cut one sliver of an island in two. “It’s getting worse,” says Kaminaga Kaminaga, the tiny nation’s climate change coordinator.

The rising ocean raises questions, too: What happens if the 61,000 Marshallese must abandon their low-lying atolls? Would they still be a nation? With a U.N. seat? With control of their old fisheries and their undersea minerals? Where would they live, and how would they make a living? Who, precisely, would they and their children become?

For years global negotiations to act on climate change have dragged on, with little to show. Parties to the 193-nation U.N. climate treaty are meeting again in this Caribbean resort, but no one expects decisive action to roll back the industrial, agricultural and transport emissions blamed for global warming — and consequently for swelling seas.

From 7,000 miles (11,000 kilometers) away, the people of the Marshalls — and of Kiribati, Tuvalu and other atoll nations beyond — can only wonder how many more years they’ll be able to cope.

“People who built their homes close to shore, all they can do is get more rocks to rebuild the seawall in front day by day,” said Kaminaga, who is in Cancun with the Marshallese delegation to the U.N. talks.

The Marshallese government is looking beyond today, however, to those ultimate questions of nationhood, displacement and rights.

“We’re facing a set of issues unique in the history of the system of nation-states,” Dean Bialek, a New York-based adviser to the Republic of the Marshall Islands who is also in Cancun, told The Associated Press. “We’re confronting existential issues associated with climate impacts that are not adequately addressed in the international legal framework.”

The Marshallese government took a first step to confront these issues by asking for advice from the Center for Climate Change Law at New York’s Columbia University. The center’s director, Michael B. Gerrard, in turn has asked legal scholars worldwide to assemble at Columbia next May to begin to piece together answers.

Nations have faded into history through secession — recently with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, for example — or through conquest or ceding their territory to other countries.

But “no country has ever physically disappeared, and it’s a real void in the law,” Gerrard said during an interview in New York.

The U.N. network of climate scientists projects that seas, expanding from heat and from the runoff of melting land ice, may rise by up to 1.94 feet (0.59 meters) by 2100, swamping much of the scarce land of coral atolls.

But the islands may become uninhabitable long before waves wash over them, because of the saline contamination of water supplies and ruining of crops, and because warming is expected to produce more threatening tropical storms.

“If a country like Tuvalu or Kiribati were to become uninhabitable, would the people be stateless? What’s their position in international law?” asked Australian legal scholar Jane McAdam. “The short answer is, it depends. It’s complicated.”

McAdam, of the University of New South Wales, has traveled in the atoll nations and studied the legal history.

As far as islanders keeping their citizenship and sovereignty if they abandon their homelands, she said by telephone from Sydney, “it’s unclear when a state would end because of climate change. It would come down to what the international community was prepared to tolerate” — that is, whether the U.N. General Assembly would move to take a seat away from a displaced people.

The 1951 global treaty on refugees, mandating that nations shelter those fleeing because of persecution, does not cover the looming situation of those displaced by climate change. Some advocate negotiating a new international pact obliging similar treatment for environmental refugees.

In the case of the Marshallese, the picture is murkier. Under a compact with Washington, citizens of the former U.S. trusteeship territory have the right to freely enter the U.S. for study or work, but their right to permanent residency must be clarified, government advisers say.

The islanders worry, too, about their long-term economic rights. The wide scattering of the Marshalls’ 29 atolls, 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) southwest of Hawaii, give them an exclusive economic zone of 800,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) of ocean, an area the size of Mexico.

The tuna coursing through those waters are the Marshalls’ chief resource, exploited by selling licenses to foreign fishing fleets. “If their islands go underwater, what becomes of their fishing rights?” Gerrard asked. Potentially just as important: revenues from magnesium and other sea-floor minerals that geologists have been exploring in recent years.

While lawyers at next May’s New York conference begin to sort out the puzzle of disappeared nations, the Marshallese will grapple with the growing problems.

The “top priority,” Kaminaga said, is to save the isthmus linking the Marshalls’ Jaluit island to its airport, a link now swept by high tides.

Meantime, a lingering drought this year led islanders to tap deeper into their wells, finding salty water requiring them to deploy emergency desalination units. And “parts of the islands are eroding away,” Kaminaga said, as undermined lines of coconut palms topple into the sea.

This week in Cancun and in the months to come, the Marshalls’ representatives will seek international aid for climate adaptation. They envision such projects as a Jaluit causeway, replanting of protective vegetation on shorelines, and a 3-mile-long (5-kilometer-long) seawall protecting their capital, Majuro, from the Pacific’s rising tides.

Islanders’ hopes are fading, however, for quick, decisive action to slash global emissions and save their remote spits of land for the next century.

“If all these financial and diplomatic tools don’t work, I think some countries are looking at some kind of legal measures,” said Dessima Williams, Grenada’s U.N. ambassador and chair of a group of small island-nations. Those measures might include appeals to the International Court of Justice or other forums for compensation, a difficult route at best.

In the end, islanders wonder, too, what will happen to their culture, their history, their identity with a homeland — even to their ancestors — if they must leave.

“Cemeteries along the coastline are being eroded. Gravesites are falling into the sea,” Kaminaga said. “Even in death we’re affected.”

This concerns me greatly.  People who deal with environmental studies, even just a little, have been worried that we would soon be seeing climate refugees – people who live in island nations that are disappearing because of rising sea levels.  These are the exact islands that scientists have been worried about for a while now.

The question for the whole world, but most especially for those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ, is how do we help climate refugees?  Not only how do we help them to leave their homes, but how do we help them preserve their culture and heritage in new places?

I don’t think that Jesus would want any group of people to leave their culture behind when they have to move to a new place.  And I completely expect that God expects US (that’s us, as in his followers, not US as in United States, although I think he expects the United States to welcome them too, despite our laws about illegal aliens) to welcome them to our lands and our homes.  Leviticus 19:34 says, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”  From Exodus 12:49: “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”

The Bible also tells us that God will judge us for how we treat foreigners. Malachi 3:5 says, “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

And for those of you Christians who are wondering where Jesus said there would be judgment against the oppressors, here you go:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

It’s harsh, I know.  And nowhere in those verses does it say Jesus will send those people away who didn’t read the Bible, or go to the right church, or pray enough.  These verses from Matthew tell us that those of us who don’t the help the poor, the oppressed, and the strangers in our land will be sent away from Jesus.

 

Now that we know that God will send us away if we send the strangers and aliens in our lands away, how do we respond?

Unfortunately, there’s not one totally right or good answer, and the answer is ruled as much by geopolitics as much as it by our desire to be obedient to God.  The BEST answer would for all the people of the world who have caused climate change to do whatever they can to help reverse it, so that the sea levels don’t rise further.

The United States has the space to take in all the climate refugees.  Every single one of them.  But would we have the space, understanding, and love for them to allow them to keep as much of their culture as they can?  Sure, there are some things about their cultures that would have to change, simply because they would be in a different environment and climate.  But would we love them enough to allow them their religious rituals?  To let them share their stories and educate their children as they see fit?  Or would we make them assimilate to American culture and education, and do our best to make them forget their homes?

Advertisements

About faithenvironmentcollide

Child of God. Follower of Christ. Wife to Jeff. Mom to Liam. Environmental steward. Writer. Reader. Researcher. View all posts by faithenvironmentcollide

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: