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Pacific Islands, Climate Change, and Underwater Nationhood

In the beautiful green-blue waters surrounding an island in the archipelago nation of Kiribati, Anote Tong calmly treads water as he watches the sunset. Although his surroundings can only be described as tropical paradise, his eyes betray sadness and deep worry. For him, his fellow citizens, and for countless others living on Pacific islands, climate change-induced sea level rise looms over every minute of life. Well before the year 2100 (by which point seas are estimated to rise by as much as two meters) island nations such as Kiribati will be submerged and their populations forced to adapt accordingly. Indeed, they may be among the first humans on Earth to be permanently displaced by the catastrophic effects of global, human-induced climate change, a fact that is not lost on Mr. Tong. The devastating effects of climate change are already a stark reality in the Pacific: Five islands in the Solomon Islands archipelago were lost to the sea in 2016, proving that his concern for Kiribati is anything but speculatory.

However, Anote Tong differs in one very significant way from his fellow Kiribatians: He was their President from 2003 to 2016, and during his time in office he fought tirelessly on the largest stages for a global, comprehensive plan to address climate change. It is not that the concerns of Anote Tong and others are unheard or that their situation is unknown. The issue of Pacific island submersion has been well-reported in a number of outlets, and public awareness is steadily increasing. What has not been reported on, written about, or spoken of as extensively is what to do afterward.

So far, only a few post-submersion options have been discussed, the most popular of which are island reconstruction and comprehensive migration (and subsequent assimilation). Island reconstruction has become something of a catch-all term that encompasses everything from raising sea walls and houses to building up an island itself, raising it higher above rising seas. Unfortunately, unlike Western-controlled islands such as California’s Balboa Island, which plans to spend two million dollars on sea wall improvements and other related short term infrastructure projects, many Pacific island countries simply do not have the deep pockets (or the international attention) necessary to undertake such costly ventures. After all, the Pacific archipelago nation of Tonga has a per capita GDP of just $5425. And there is no guarantee that reconstruction is a permanent fix. If sea levels rise continuously, island reconstruction would effectively be nothing more than a never-ending treadmill or an overly-expensive band-aid. As the clock continues to tick, it is becoming increasingly clear that both price and time (sea levels could rise 16 inches by midcentury) are prohibitive for Pacific island reconstruction.

The migration option is much more of a grey area, however. Those concerned with migration options generally accept the inevitability of a Pacific Island Diaspora and view structured migration as the best path forward. For its part, the World Bank has argued “…a structured migration program instituted now would prevent a more harried, forced migration in future generations.” Proponents of the migration option also tend to advocate for nations such as Australia and New Zealand to open their borders to receive new migrants. However, underlying these discussions is the assumption of assimilation along with other expectations associated with traditional definitions of “migrant” or “refugee.” This is inherently problematic.

"Island submersion shatters these understandings of justice and migration, and thus, in order to assure proper justice for future climate refugees, it may be time for redefinition."

Humanity has not yet encountered migrants who have no country to return to. Implicit in our modern understanding of the “migrant” is that they have the option to return somewhere should conditions allow. Furthermore, our understanding of what justice means for migrants (and refugees in particular) generally ends with comfortable, safe living and the ability to advance in society. It has never included self-governance or sovereignty. Island submersion shatters these understandings of justice and migration, and thus, in order to assure proper justice for future climate refugees, it may be time for redefinition.

On this matter, Anote Tong has been remarkably forward-thinking and, frankly, years ahead of the international community. In a piece for the Washington Post this October, he wrote, “As for Kiribati? It is already too late. But what the international community could do is assure the islanders that they will be able to migrate with dignity.” So what will “migration with dignity” entail? It may, in fact, require a complete reconstruction of the meanings of “territory” and “sovereignty.”

First and foremost, the utmost dignity that we can afford anyone forced to migrate under these circumstances is the ability to continue to practice their culture, free from the pressures of assimilation. Simply put, it would be entirely unconscionable to expect, upon arrival, for these individuals to relinquish some of the last ties they have to centuries upon centuries of rich history. And, given that one of the potential destinations for a large percentage of the migrants is Australia (which is in the midst of a particularly divisive immigration debate), this scenario does not seem so unlikely. Finally, if the principle of self-determination is truly accepted as an international norm, it should be applied in complete form to Pacific Island Diaspora. Again, climate-driven migration is not of some people but of a great number of people, who, regardless of whether or not they exist on their original territory, still ought to be entitled to the right of self-determination. This brings to light a serious problem: How do we provide climate refugees with sufficient self-autonomy? Again, Anote Tong might just have the answer.

Under his direction, Kiribati purchased 6,000 acres of land on Fiji as a haven for its inevitable migrants. Although, as it stands, the territory will still be governed by Fiji, the purchase is a step in the right direction. What if those 6,000 acres were overseen not by Fiji, but rather by a transplanted Kiribatian state? What if migrating states of people, from Tongans to Palauans, could arrive on territory which they have the exclusive power to govern? This would solve the problem, but would require some very ambitious changes. First, it would require the international community to reimagine the relationship between sovereignty and territory as fluid. No longer should sovereignty be seen as a function of what territory is held, or for how long it has been held. Rather, sovereignty should be given anywhere that the population exists. In essence, sovereignty is a right given to people, not to land. Sovereignty follows where the people exist. Importantly, this process isn’t just beneficial for those at risk in the Pacific islands: Reimagining sovereignty even has the potential to lend new strength to well known self-determination movements in Palestine and Western Sahara.

Beyond this requirement of reimagination, for Pacific Island countries to be able to transplant their nationhood, “receiving” states must be willing to give up governance of some amount of territory. By itself, this task seems fairly impossible. But, if the norms of self-determination and sovereignty are reimagined, and the international community exerts sufficient pressure, this might not be so outlandish. After all, these small states are hardly bitter rivals of each other and of potential transplant countries. It is not at all like the United States being asked by Russia to give up a slice territory for Russian settlers. Moreover, binding agreements could be made between the “migrating country” and the “receiving country” restricting the raising of militaries of any kind. This is not a difficult ask in the first place, as a substantial number of small Pacific island states do not even currently maintain armed forces. But another problem is apparent. Will receiving states have enough unoccupied territory to meet the needs of migrating states? If not, would people have to be displaced? As with any international effort, there must be some degree of compromise. Just as it is not right to force Pacific Island Diaspora to assimilate, it would not be right to displace people from their homes. Therefore, all that can be done is to pursue transplanting nationhood as much as possible.

Climate change-induced Pacific island submersion will be one of humanity’s biggest tests. Will the international community continue to brush the issue to the side, paving the way for overly simplistic, damaging migration and assimilation solutions? Or can we face up to the difficulty and complexity of the problem, and realize that proper justice will only come from a complete restructuring of our perceptions of territory and sovereignty. Are the common bonds of humanity and solidarity strong enough? As Anote Tong pleads in his Washington Post article, “It is time for the world to wake up and understand: we are all Kiribati.”

Photo: Atolón de Onotoa dese o aire

About the Author

Christopher Kobel '21 is the Associate Section Manager for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Christopher can be reached at