Unstoppable? Sea Level Rise, Climate Change and Tuvalu



Not so many years ago I wrote a paper on the impact of climate change on the South Pacific Island State of Tuvalu. The island was being and continues to be consumed by the rising sea. The Ostrich with its head in the sand would now drown if on Tuvalu!

The paper is now out of date. Historically, it was written before the Paris Agreement. That is largely irrelevant for the purposes of this note. I have uploaded the paper nevertheless to Academia.edu.

I would like to revisit two propositions I put forward in the paper because they have recently found fresh traction.

The first was an engineering solution to the parlous state of Tuvalu, an isolated, independent State with an area of about 25 square kms and with a maximum elevation above sea level of about 4 metres (average about 2 metres). The solution suggested that significant environmentally acceptable engineering structures be considered to reduce, if not eliminate, the impact of inevitable sea level rise to ensure a land mass to support an optimum permanent population for the purposes of its continued recognition as a State. Tuvalu has a seat at the UN and it has valuable resources in and below the sea, the rights to which may well be compromised if its Statehood was questioned. That would undoubtedly be a consequence if Tuvalu as a land mass with an optimum permanent population ceased to exist.

Of course, the possible solution is easier stated than implemented. But the point I want to make is this.

Since the paper China’s claim of sovereignty in the South China Sea in 2016 has been rejected and, China has relevantly all but completed extensive engineering works on the disputed Spratly Islands. There are undoubted geological, geographic and topographic (to name but a few) differences between these islands and Tuvalu. But, China’s claim, its political motives, its purpose and the possible disregard of environmental constraints cannot obscure the fact that these kinds of structures and facilities are not simply possible, they are also achievable. The structures on the Spratly Islands are extensive and include air fields, hangars, naval docks, barracks to accommodate a significant population, radar networks, extensive defensive structures and underground tunnels.

Is it not time for Tuvalu (and other independent States in the Region) to turn its mind again to the issue of surviving as a State.

The second proposition was a litigious approach. In terms of inevitable sea level rise Tuvalu has nowhere to go. It has nowhere it can go. Sometimes doubtful causes of action become viable in those circumstances. And in the international context a dispute might go to the ICJ, for example (even for an advisory opinion), or to a domestic court. But however the issue is framed, there is access to justice. It is the result which is uncertain.

A significant contributor to climate change and its symptom, sea level rise, is the burning of fossil fuels, coal significantly. Australia exports massive tonnages of coal to countries in the Asia, East and South East Asia regions which, Australia knows, can burn the imported coal without regard to adverse environmental impact.

Yet science has contributed to a legal solution. The contribution to climate change in this part of the world from the burning of fossil fuels is now reasonably measurable, not only as to source, but as to impact. Causation can be addressed.

And science has contributed in another way. Sufficient advancement has now been made for a country such as Australia, to recognize that, if its coal is to be exported, the use of it can be conditioned to the implementation of clean burn technology. The immediate or progressive stipulation of conditions of this kind can be considered, but the need to do it seems practical if not inevitable. Conditioning the export of Australia’s raw materials is not without precedent. Uranium is but one example.

Of course there are many more issues which must be discussed in pursuing this line, but the snail-pace and uncertainty of current measures is doing Tuvalu no good at all. In context, the political pursuit of a solution to Tuvalu’s problem of survival because of the impact of climate change is simply not succeeding.

Again, is it not time for Tuvalu (and other independent States in the Region) to turn its mind again to the issue of surviving as a State.





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