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Will Climate Change Create Nations Without States December 6, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Predicting what effects climate change is going to have on the world can make even the most educated research feel a little bit like Nostradamus.  There are so many variables and so many ways in which they can interact that most of the time we really can’t start planning for disaster until it’s already happening.  Case in point, this story.

The short of it is that due to rising sea levels brought about by glacial melting and the like many island nations are in danger of becoming uninhabitable.  Though the threat of them sinking below the waves a la Atlantis is not in the near future the more pressing concerns are things like fresh water supplies and arable land.  Before too long many of these nations may face the possibility of being left without a home.

This presents an interesting dilemma.  Can a nation-state remain a functioning entity without solid ground underneath it?  This is not a problem we as a species have confronted before and are completely unprepared for.  Certainly states have vanished before but usually through conquest and revolution.  This problem calls into question the very concept of what constitutes a nation-state, an idea that has been around for centuries now, and will force us to question where political authority and national sovereignty are actually derived.  In addition there are issues with fishing rights and mineral wealth to be addressed not to mention the relatively mundane problem of where these people are going to live.

So what exactly will happen?  I foresee a few possibilities.

1) The people of the disappearing nations are absorbed into countries they take refuge in.  The nation loses it’s seat in the UN and rights to things like fisheries or minerals are handled through international negotiations with no regard for the original inhabitants.  My money’s on this one.

2) The people keep there status as a nation but not as a state.  They maintain rights to natural resources within there former territory even if they live somewhere else.  This situation, similar to the status of Native American tribes in the US, could happen but I doubt it.

3) The people remain a nation and a state.  They continue to have a functioning government and retain their seat in the UN.  Don’t count on it.

4) The people are placed under a new designation for societies displaced by the effects of climate change.  What this new designation actually will look like I cannot say but I would guess it would fall under the auspices of the UN and have some sort of protections for resource rights and things like that.  This one actually makes some sense to me but there are too many variables for me to say whether or not it’s likely.

Whatever the eventual outcome it seems likely that many of these people will be displaced.  Action against climate change is coming far too slowly and far too late to make any meaningful difference.  Don’t believe me, check the news surrounding the current summit in Cancun (hint: it’s depressing).  As many have correctly pointed out the necessary changes will be detrimental to short-term economic growth and individual nations have no current incentive to curb there greenhouse gas emissions if they believe other nations will not do the same.  Only an international governing body could produce the necessary changes but at this point in time that seems both unlikely to happen and likely to cause other problems.

At this point it seems like adaptation to a changing world is our best course of action.  I remain skeptical of geoengineering projects.  Once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no going back.  Perhaps these island nations will be our lantern in the darkness,  showing us how to chart our course in a changing world.

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