Disappearing Islands Climate Chnge Think Nasa

July 8, 2013

Going, going, gone!” Baseball commentators use this cry to warn of an impending home run. Ecologists issue a similar plaintiff cry-or rather, cries-about the planet “Goodbye, Mother Earth!” and “Hello, Climate Change!” What they are talking about is the Big Game, the grand finale.

In the meantime, we should heed the minor warnings as well. On October 17, 2009, Mohamed Nasheed, then president of the Maldives, issued a gale warning-a small storm signaling more catastrophic things to come. For one hour, he held an underwater meeting with his ministers, fully outfitted in their scuba gear. The officials limited their discussions to hand signals, but those listening heard the message loud and clear. Soon, climate change would claim its first victim; the Maldives, the flattest nation on earth, eventually would find itself-like its cabinet-under the sea.

This article was a Featured Presentation at The Asian Conference on Sustainability, Energy and the Environment 2013, organised by The International Academic Forum (IAFOR).

Ecological Alarm Versus Environmental Calm

Climate change, allegedly, does not just pose one more environmental problem among many-to be added to a long list of global woes. Apparently, climate change symbolizes a catastrophic beast about to devour the entire planet. Only superlatives such as “cataclysmic” can capture its momentous force. To downplay its importance is to lose precious moments of hope to counteract the devastation already left in its wake. Up until the discovery or recognition of climate change, humans could afford environmentalism-a piecemeal approach, dealing with one problem at a time. Climate change, supposedly, calls for a much more drastic, radical, holistic approach-in short, an ecological perspective.

“To mistake climate change for pollution would be tantamount to treating nuclear war as gang violence”

Within an ecological framework, it supposedly becomes apparent that pollution is to climate change as gang violence is to nuclear war. To mistake climate change for pollution would be tantamount to treating nuclear war as gang violence (Nordhaus and Shellenberger, 2007). Indeed, the analogies used to conceptualize problems proves telling. Here, as we shall see, analogies can distort and mislead-diverting efforts away from the unglamorous, nitty-gritty work that, however piecemeal, might just provide the solutions.

Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1971) foresaw the earth smothered with hordes of people. Meadows and Meadows published Limits to Growth (1972), predicting the catastrophes that were about to follow from the rapidly increasing depletion of the non-renewable fossil fuels. Every so often, we should revisit these and other prophets of doom to avoid getting carried away on the wave of fear from current doomsayers. We survived the nuclear bomb, the population bomb – and, fear not, we shall survive the ecological bomb.

Karl Popper (1971), an early advocate of piecemeal engineering, warned against the totalizing theories of Plato, Marx, and Freud. He accused them of being non-falsifiable. They could accommodate any criticism and any opposing data. They were easy to confirm but immune from falsification. Ecologism has some similar traits. Its proponents often confiate holism with totalism. There is no doubt that the science of climate change has considerable empirical support. However, there also is no doubt the current climate change science will be proven wrong. For one thing, it is only as good as the current science upon which it relies, and that science is making predictions about incredibly complex systems. It would defy what we know from the history of science to contend that it must have it right. Further, climate change can either be totalizing or scientific. If the latter, then it must be subject to not only error but also to disproof.

International Law to the Rescue

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS), territory extends out into the sea: Territorial Sea (12 nm), Contiguous Zone (24 nm), Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (200 nm), and the Continental Shelf (350 nm). The only one of these zones that will concern us is the EEZ, which roughly signifies how much of the seabed a state can exclusively exploit for oil, minerals, etc.

Baselines also will prove crucial to the analysis. The extent of each zone begins from a baseline near the shore. We should note a few things about baselines.. First, they are drawn from natural sites and not from artificial structures. Second, baselines become problematic if those natural formations such as seashores change radically. Third, scattered island states have distinct advantages when it comes to drawing baselines. Baselines for these archipelagic states are drawn around the entire perimeter of the islands.

An environmental approach may offer a more pragmatic, piecemeal, environmental solution. The Exclusive Economic zones hold the key. Compare the EEZs of a number of states. The United States (11,351,000 km2) has the most extensive EEZ partly because of the islands it controls. Japan (4,479,388 km2) pales in comparison to the US but has nearly five times the EEZ as China (879,666 km2). China’s relatively paltry EEZ may help explain its assertive claims to many disputed islands, which, if successfully resolved in China’s favor, would triple its EEZ. However, most importantly for the purposes of this analysis, note the comparatively large EEZs of the small disappearing island states. Kiribati (3,441,810 km2) has nearly the same size EEZ as Japan and nearly four times the EEZ size of China, which, in turn, has about the same size EEZ as the Maldives (923,322 km2) and Tuvalu (749,790 km2). The economic potential of this is enormous.

An EEZ gives a state, within those boundaries, rights of exploitation over all natural resources (fish, etc.), nonliving resources (oil, gas, diamonds, etc.) as well as potential development rights of energy sources such as wind. In short, the disappearing states, despite the poverty of their people, have enormous potential sources of wealth within their EEZs. They may not have the wherewithal to exploit these resources themselves, but the EEZ gives them an incredibly powerful bargaining tool. They could sell EEZs to the highest bidders. Proceeds from these sales could then be used to relocate their peoples to, perhaps, any country of their choosing. Economic well-being would make attempts to carve out new categories of refugees, an idle exercise indeed.

This solution, however, could only take place if the increasingly ambulatory baselines of the disappearing island states become frozen at their current levels (Caron 1991). Freezing baselines does not have the panache of ending global warming. It represents a comparatively simple, piecemeal, that is, environmental, proposal. Yet, the consequences of amending LOS to do this would be enormous and widespread. For one thing, it would begin to address not only the plight of those living on the disappearing islands but also it could serve as a platform for strengthening those coastal communities threatened with extinction.


The ecological approach, cited at the outset, relies on a highly misleading analogy. Pollution is not to climate change as gang violence is to nuclear war. Climate change problems are no more or no less amenable to solution than pollution problems are. They both require nothing less than the mobilization of the political will needed to solve them. We should resist hyperbolic analogies. The international community, greatly to its detriment, has bought into seeing terrorism as like nuclear war when a saner view would see it more as a form of gang violence. The international community should not make the same mistake with climate change that it made with terrorism.

Image | NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

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About Thomas Simon

Dr. Thomas Simon is Resident Professor of International Law at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Nanjing University, China. Prior to the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, Dr. Simon was associated with the Department of International Studies of the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He previously taught philosophy and chaired the Department of Philosophy at Illinois State University. As a Fulbright Scholar, he taught in the University of Malaya Law Faculty and conducted research at the Centre for Civilization Dialogue. He has taught law at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia and the University of Prishtina, Kosovo. He held the Distinguished Chair of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Northern Colorado as well as helped to establish an English-speaking Japanese university, Miyazaki International College. His awards include a Liberal Arts Fellowship from Harvard Law School. He has received awards for teaching excellence from the University of Florida and the University of Illinois. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Washington University and a J.D. in law from the University of Illinois. His research focuses on global injustices and on minority issues. In addition to over forty articles, his publications include Group Injustices (2011), Laws of Genocide (2007), Law & Philosophy (2000), and Democracy and Social Injustice (1995). He founded and edited Injustice Studies, an electronic journal. He has consulted for the United Nations Working Group on Minorities and the American Bar Association Central/Eastern European Law Initiative. He served on a drafting committee for Albania’s new constitution. As a practicing attorney, he has represented a Diaspora Rwandan group in an extradition case to the Ad Hoc War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda and has served locally as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for child abuse cases. He has been admitted to the practice of law in the District of Columbia, Illinois, and Maryland.

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