Atoll Island States and Climate Change: Sovereignty Implications

This article, by two researchers of the United Nations University (UNU) Institute for Advanced Studies, summarizes a working paper in which they examine questions of long-term survival for Atoll Island States. These countries could become uninhabitable or submerged in the course of the next century due to sea-level rise and coastal erosion, exacerbated by stronger tropical cyclones. Prominent vulnerable island nations include Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives.

Understand the legal considerations for states that may be lost to sea-level rise. 

This working paper recognizes the legal consequences that these effects would have on the sovereignty of Atoll Island States. It gives a number of possible scenarios of what could happen to atoll islands - discussing each according to the current Law of the Sea, and examines some of the possible legal effects of the re-location of the citizens of these countries. The paper also proposes remediation strategies for these States to attempt to continue claiming Exclusive Economic Zones around them, which could be lost if the islands became “barren rocks” or disappeared under the sea. The possibility of having a government-in-exile is also discussed, which would center upon the idea that these islands could re-emerge one day in the distant future, where the descendants of the current inhabitants could re-claim these lands.

Atoll Island States are considered to be highly vulnerable to climate change, as the highest point in these islands is often only a few meters above sea level. They typically have a high ratio of coastline to land area, relatively high population densities and low level of available resources for adaptive measures. While facing sea level rise and other climate change effects, the population cannot move to higher ground within the islands and would probably have to emigrate to foreign countries.


Publication Date: October 2011

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Lilian Yamamoto
  • Miguel Esteban

Related Organizations:

  • United Nations University - Institute of Advanced Studies


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Assessment
  • Legal Analysis


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