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The Modern Atlantis: 21st Century Solutions To A Legendary Problem

The Modern Atlantis: 21st Century Solutions To A Legendary Problem

Chelsea Dixon

Nations around the world are feeling the effects of climate change. The international community now accepts that climate change is spurred by human action, and the consequences of climate change will be severe.[1] One consequence is the emergence of Environmentally Displaced Persons. Environmentally Displaced Persons, defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, are those “who are displaced from or who feel obliged to leave their usual place of residence, because their lives, livelihoods and welfare have been placed at serious risk as a result of adverse environmental, ecological or climatic processes and events.”[2] There are fifty-one island nations around the world that identify themselves as Small Island Developing States (SIDS).[3] Many of these nations are also included in the United Nation’s grouping of Least Developed Countries,[4] and as such have contributed very little to the carbon emissions that cause climate change (less than 1% of global emissions).[5] It has been called a “grand irony” of climate change: “those who will suffer most acutely are also those who are least responsible for the crisis to date.”[6] Despite their minimal contribution to the issue, climate change will disproportionately impact SIDS due to their geographic vulnerability. This is largely due to the low elevation of many SIDS and the increased rate of sea level rise in particularly vulnerable areas, such as the Pacific, where sea level rise has increased at rates four times the global average.[7] According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, SIDS are expected to experience an increase in submergence, coastal flooding, coastal erosion, and in the worst cases, inundation.[8] The inhabitants of the island nations of Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and the Maldives are 500,000 of the most at-risk people threatened by climate change.[9]

Current law does not favor Environmentally Displaced Persons; to be frank, it hardly recognizes the classification. Climate change litigation is considered “a very lengthy, expensive, and ultimately futile process.”[10] Current refugee law does not apply to Environmentally Displaced Persons, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) emphasized:

People who have been displaced as a result of environmental change are not normally considered to be refugees, even if they have been obliged to cross an international border and move into another country. Refugees are distinguished by the fact that they lack the protection of their state and therefore look to the international community to provide them with security. Environmentally displaced people, on the other hand, can usually count upon the protection of their state, even if it’s limited in its capacity to provide them with emergency relief or longer-term reconstruction assistance.”[11]

The law of stateless persons may soon apply to SIDS due to rising sea levels and disappearing land. Statelessness is particularly demoralizing; not only has a stateless person lost any home he might have had, but he has also lost any national identity.[12] Stateless persons receive less protection under international human rights law than persons with nationality because they are so often overlooked.[13] Rather than losing their statehood through climate change, SIDS should make efforts to retain their statehood in a different way, such as through the purchase or creation of a new territory where they can retain their autonomy.

Located in the South Pacific between Australia and Hawaii, Tuvalu has been on the word’s stage in recent years as the example of the worst possible consequence of climate change: an entire civilization disappearing under the rising ocean.[14] It’s expected that the more frequent and stronger storms will make life on Tuvalu unbearable even before total inundation makes it impossible.[15] However, many Tuvaluans still consider the cost of migration too high; they would lose their traditional way of life in exchange for modernity that they consider to be unfulfilling.[16]  Though many of Tuvalu’s younger citizens recognize the benefits of uprooting their lives in favor of a stable environment, reports have noted that “it appears that Tuvalu, at the government level at least, is taking a stand to stay and fight until the bitter end.”[17] The Marshall Islands, located in the South Pacific slightly north of Tuvalu, is even more adamant about its resolve to save the island or sink with the ship and are devoting resources to sustainable development rather than investing in solutions that involve migration.[18]

The South Pacific island of Kiribati is recognized as a leader in its response to climate change.[19] The island nation has taken a pragmatic approach to the concern of rising sea levels and likely inundation: “Help us not to abandon our beloved Kiribati, but if we have to leave, please invite us in.”[20] The I-Kiribati recognize that they may have to resort to migration, but if they do it will be “migration with dignity,” which emphasizes preparation and advanced planning rather than forced or panicked responses to climate change.[21] The government has purchased 6,000 acres of land in Fiji that can be used for relocation purposes if necessary.[22] It has also considered the option of purchasing floating islands from Japan where the I-Kiribati can resettle if Kiribati is inundated.[23]

In the Indian Ocean, the Maldives are in very real danger in the near future if sea levels continue to rise. As the lowest country in the world,[24] an expected one-half meter rise in the ocean by 2025 will inundate a majority of the Maldives’ most populous island, and by the end of the century, half of the island nation will be underwater.[25] In the face of this challenge, the Maldives are taking a pioneering approach.[26] Like Kiribati, they are considering purchasing land in the surrounding region.[27] But they also built a new island,[28] which is the first of a series of small islands that they will build as both a new home for the Maldivian islanders but also as a continued source of the tourism revenue that the island state relies on.[29] These islands are designed to float so they will rise along with the sea level, and they will be attached to the seabed with cables or moorings that will keep the islands stable through storms.[30] The first island is already home to several thousand Maldivians who no longer have to live in fear of the rising sea level.[31] When the Maldives’ natural islands become uninhabitable, whether in twenty-five years or 100, the Maldivians will have a home waiting for them.

The Maldives and Kiribati are pioneering new methods of combating the devastating effects of climate change. By purchasing territory from nations in the surrounding regions and creating artificial floating landmasses to accommodate the rising sea levels, these island nations have prevented the statelessness of their people. Though issues of sovereignty come into play, it is likely that the international community will accommodate the developing necessity of artificial installations and recognize them as sovereign territory of the island nations that will soon lose their traditional territory.[32] The innovative solutions proposed by Kiribati and the Maldives are the most ideal solutions that preserve the nationality and statehood of Environmentally Displaced Persons from these SIDS.

Questions and inquiries regarding this Note may be forwarded to the author at

[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policy Makers: Contribution of Working Group I to IPCC Fifth Assessment Report 15 (2014) [hereinafter IPCC 2014].
[2] Research Handbook on Climate Change Adaptation Law 78 (Jonathan Verschuuren, ed., Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd. 2013).
[3] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, SIDS Members, Sustainable Dev. Knowledge Platform, (last visited Oct. 24, 2014).
[4] United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO List of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Small Island Developing States, (last visited Oct. 24, 2014).
[5] Achim Steiner, Help Small Island States Win Their Battle Against Climate Change, The Guardian (Aug. 29, 2014),
[6]Maxine Burkett, Climate Reparations, 10 Melb. J. Int’l L. 509, 510 (2009).
[7] L.A. Nurse, R.F. McLean, J. Agard, L.P. Briguglio, V. Duvat-Magnan, N. Pelesikoti, E. Tompkins, and A. Webb, 2014: Small islands, in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1613-1654, 1619 (Cambridge Univ. Press 2014).
[8] IPCC, 2014: Summary for policymakers. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Field, C.B., V.R. Barros, D.J. Dokken, K.J. Mach, M.D. Mastrandrea, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken,
P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 1-32, 17-21.
[9] Katrina M. Wyman, Are We Morally Obligated to Assist Climate Change Migrants?, 7 L. & Ethics Hum. Rts. 185, 198 (2013).
[10] Katherine McGrow, ‘Climate Refugee’ Nation Tuvalu Ponders Legal Options Against Polluters, Pac. Scoop (Sep. 9, 2009),
[11] U.N. High Comm’r for Refugees, The State of the World’s Refugees: A Humanitarian Agenda, Chapter 1, Box 1.2 (1997), available at
[12] See id. (obliging stateless persons to act in conformity to the laws of the country in which he finds himself).
[13] See Kate Darling, Protection of Stateless Persons in International Asylum and Refugee Law, 21 Int’l J. Refugee L. 742 (2009) (“States are the intended mechanism through which individuals access the rights conferred by international human rights law. Having no state obliged to ensure those rights, stateless persons can easily be excluded from the purview of that body of law.”).
[14] Aura Weinbaum, Unjust Enrichment: An Alternative to Tort Law and Human Rights in the Climate Change Context?, 20 Pac. Rim L. & Pol’y J. 429, 433–34 (2011).
[15] Patrick Barkham, Going Down, The Guardian (Feb. 15, 2002),
[16] Id.
[17] Scott Leckie & Dan Lewis, Kiribati and Tuvalu Will Drown Without Global Climate Action, Ecologist (Nov. 11, 2010).
[18] Allie O’Keefe, Marshall Islands President Calls for Global Action to Solve Climate Change, Colum. Daily Spectator (Sep. 26, 2013),
[19] Leckie & Lewis, supra note 17.
[20] Id.
[21] Gemina Harvey, Sinking States: Climate Change and the Pacific, The Diplomat (May 22, 2014),
[22] Id.
[23] Jenny Grote Stoutenburg, When Do States Disappear? Thresholds of Effective Statehood and the Continued Recognition of ‘Deterritorialised’ Island States, in Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate 57 (Michael B. Gerrard & Gregory E. Wannier eds., 2013).
[24] Plan for New Maldives Homeland, BBC News, (Nov. 10, 2008),
[25] Submission of the Maldives to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 19 (2008), available at http:// Submission.pdf.
[26] Michael Gagain, Climate Change, Sea Level Rise, and Artificial Islands: Saving the Maldives’ Statehood and Maritime Claims Through the ‘Constitution of the Oceans’, 23 Colo. J. Int’l Envtl. L. & Pol’y 77, 81 (2012).
[27] Plan for New Maldives Homeland, supra note 24.
[28] Gagain, supra note 26.
[29] Maldives to Build Floating Islands to Save Country from Rising Sea Levels, Homeland Security News Wire, (Aug. 27, 2012),
[30] Id.
[31] Jon Hamilton, Maldives Builds Barriers to Global Warming, Nat’l Pub. Radio, (Jan. 28, 2008),
[32] Stoutenburg, supra note 23.


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