Professor John Knox quoted in Forbes about sinking nations pursuing legal options

The Marshall Islands is approaching extinction.  The threat is not from a plague or a warring neighbor.  It is the very ocean that surrounds this archipelago of islands and atolls located in the Pacific Ocean just above the equator.

The math is as simple as it is deadly.  As global temperatures rise, so will sea levels from three to six feet by the end of the century according to the Columbia University Earth Institute.  The speckles of flat land that make up the Marshall Islands rise about seven feet above sea level.

In a few decades, scientists predict that rising ocean levels, combined with stronger, more frequent storms, will erode coastlines and destroy fresh water and agricultural supplies of low-elevation island nations (not to mention low-altitude coastlines across the globe).

After rising sea water renders these islands uninhabitable, it will then drive these nations out of existence.  Disbursed populations living in legal limbo across the globe will make it nearly impossible to form and administer any form of government, leaving behind an unanchored Diaspora state.  And even if a population from an individual nation flocks to a concentrated area, it will be “profoundly difficult to maintain a culture” in a new environment that barely resembles the abandoned homeland, explained Michael Gerrard, director of the Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law.

When the rising ocean swallows up these island nations entirely – perhaps by the end of the century – little will remain of them but wistful memories and underwater remnants of a modern-day Atlantis.

Though many of the repercussions these nations are likely to suffer are decades away, some are already imminently threatened.  The tiny nation of Kiribati is currently negotiating a land purchase from nearby Fiji to relocate its inhabitants.

To date, neither global treaties like the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997 (entered into effect in 2005) nor domestic efforts among various nations to switch to cleaner forms of energy has reduced the level of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.  From 1990 – which is the baseline for the Kyoto emissions targets – to 2009, global greenhouse gas emissions rose by nearly 40 percent.  The United States, which did not ratify the Protocol, saw a seven percent increase in emissions during this period.  The growth of the once-dormant economies of India and China, a rising global population, and an inability to accept difficult political choices and make economic sacrifices among industrialized nations has all but ensured that this trend is unlikely to change in the near future.

After watching these myriad failures to curb climate change, threatened island nations are now turning to legal outlets in search of a lifeline.  As thinly populated nations carrying little economic or political heft, however, their efforts may provide little more than a moral victory.

“There are no great options,” said John Knox, a professor at Wake Forest Law School.  “These nations are trying to use the tools available to them.”  They cannot simply haul the largest greenhouse gas emitters to court.  No treaties – including the Kyoto Protocol – create a cause of action with which a nation acutely suffering from climate change can sue the primary sources of global warming.  Besides, directly linking the emissions from any one nation to a global problem is messy, like trying to ascribe the start of the First World War to one person.

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