The Struggle of Climate-Induced Statelessness

Addressing rising sea levels doesn’t just mean redrawing the lines of nations. SEI intern Giacomo Ranalli investigates the concerning gap in international law regarding changes in sovereignty and whether it has the capacity to protect millions of environmentally-displaced citizens.

Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives. Image via Unsplash

The extent to which climate change is a threatening security issue is continuously discussed across the international community, however, it is with mounting urgency that we need to acknowledge the affects of climate change on statehood, and the fact that some countries will disappear altogether from the world’s map.

Climate change is already catastrophically impacting humanity, with sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather irreversibly affecting coastal and island states’ communities around the world. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows that with persisting ‘business as usual’ emission trends, by the end of the century the global average sea level will increase by one meter, relative to pre-industrial levels.1 Furthermore, from 1993 to 2012, oceanic coastal areas witnessed a sea level increase two or three times higher than the global mean, due to changing climate patterns that altered oceanic currents.In coming decades, this vulnerability will continue to be magnified, with low-lying and island states of Pacific and Indian Oceans at a much greater risk than other areas. In the case of states which lie just few meters above sea level, such as the Maldives, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu, this threat challenges their very existence. Worryingly, a recent study notes that salinisation of fresh water supplies and damages to infrastructure due to constant flooding might render atoll states uninhabitable before they physically disappear, and as soon as mid-century.2

Wars, self-determination and multiple political events have changed states’ borders and shaped their authority over territories and people. However, never before in the history of the International System have states lost sovereign territory permanently due to the environment. As state institutions, civil infrastructure, landmarks, religious sites and millions of homes are submerged, what will the legal implications be for the nations and people affected?

From a broader perspective of climate-induced cross-border displacement, the most impending legal issue to be addressed is the lack of an internationally accepted framework that grants protection to affected people. Under current international refugee and human rights law, there is no effective and single consideration of climate as a driving factor of cross border displacement, demonstrated by the lack of  a commonly accepted definition of climate refugees and by the absence of legally binding treaties that ensure the human rights protection of climate change affected people.3 Therefore, the current transnational legal context fails to give a legal categorisation to climate affected people.

Narrowing down the debate to climate-induced statelessness, multiple shortcomings of international law become clear. First of all, defining and codifying statehood internationally has long been problematic, as proven by multiple historical examples and the continued lack of a widely accepted definition of a state. Perhaps the primary point of reference to define statehood is the Montevideo Convention of 1933, which lays out four necessary criteria for a state to become legal authority: permanent population, defined territory, government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.4 5 In the case of disappearing low-lying and island states due to climate change, the variable “defined territory” would be out of the equation sooner than later. Will their state continue to exist? It is difficult to address this puzzle, as there are no adequate and well-established criteria for statehood. Nonetheless, the identity of a disappearing state, defined by language, traditions and history, will long be carried by its population. Adding to this, the state’s governmental structure and societal organisation will maintain a certain integrity despite the eroding national borders, perhaps being still able to enter into relations with other states.6 Thus, certain elements of statehood will persist.

Secondly, the existing paradigms for addressing states’ successions, defined by Craven as “the change in sovereignty over territory”, are characterised by strong rigidity, which makes them inadequate to comprehensively support climate-endangered states.7 More specifically, in the case of disappearing states, the ‘change of territory’ constitutes a permanent loss of one, an extinction of land that will never be taken over by anyone. On the contrary, the current legal context envisages dissolution of states formally only due to absorption and merger with and by other States, or dissolution with the emergence of successor states.6

Thirdly and lastly, it is important to mention that the extent to which the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons might protect the group of climate-induced stateless people, is very narrow. The convention, signed in 1954, defines a stateless person “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”.8 Assuming inhabitants of disappearing islands nations were considered legally stateless, signatory state parties would be required to “facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of stateless person”.8 These processes grant protection to the individual, but ultimately undermines any capacity of the threatened state to continue to exert its sovereignty, maintain its autonomy and ensure cross generational continuation of its identity, all criteria of statehood that would persist even without a territory.6 Therefore, this solution is limited in the sense that it doesn’t extensively account for all the multiple aspects of climate-induced statelessness.

In light of this overview, statelessness and states’ succession law appear to fail to take into account climate change and its effects as a driving factor as well as the complexities and particularities of state extinction processes. Furthermore, these shortcomings shed a light on the multidimensional nature of the issue of climate-induced statelessness, which can’t be reduced to single human-centred approach.

Populations of disappearing Pacific and Indian ocean islands might see their histories, cultures and traditions disappear with their territory, if no adequate international legal frameworks are developed.

Looking at this issue from an environmental justice perspective, which accounts for a just distribution of environmental damages and benefits, disappearing low-lying and island states have contributed the least to climate change, but face the heaviest burden. This is why the international community must tackle climate-induced statelessness more comprehensively, acknowledging the need for reforms and changes of paradigms within international law, so to protect individuals at risk and ensure the continuation of those processes which allow their statehood to persist.

1. Church, J.A., P.U. Clark, A. Cazenave, J.M. Gregory, S. Jevrejeva, A. Levermann, M.A. Merrifield, G.A. Milne, R.S. Nerem, P.D. Nunn, A.J. Payne, W.T. Pfeffer, D. Stammer and A.S. Unnikrishnan, 2013, “Sea Level Change”. In: “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
2. Storlazzi C. D., Gingerich S. B., van Dongeren A., Cheriton O. M., Swarzenski P. W., Quataert E., Voss C. I., Field D. W., Annamalai H., Piniak G. A., McCall R., 2018, “Most atolls will be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century because of sea-level rise exacerbating wave-driven flooding.”, Science Advances 2018, No. 4, eaap9741 (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aap9741
3. Bodansky D., Brunnée J., Rajamani L., 2017, “Climate Change, Migration and Displacement” in “International Climate Change Law”, Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, 2017
4. Grant T.H., 1999, Defining Statehood: The Montevideo Convention and its Discontents,” Journal of Transnational Law, Vol.37 No. 403, pp. 403-457
5. Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, 1933, Article I
6. McAdam J., 2012, “Disappearing States’, Statelessness and the Boundaries of International Law,” in McAdam J. “Climate Change and Displacement, Multidisciplinary Perspectives,” Bloomsbury Publishment, 2012
7. Craven M. C. R., 1998, “The problem of State Succession and the Identity of States Under International Law,” European Journal of International Law 9 (1998), pp. 142-162
8. UNHCR, 1954, Text of the 1954 Convention Relating to the status of Stateless persons, UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency. Accessed online.

Giacomo Ranalli is an undergraduate student of International Relations at King’s College London. He is currently undertaking a yearlong exchange programme with the University of Sydney. Originally Giacomo is from Rome, Italy, but moved to London in order to pursue his studies with a broader perspective. During the last years, Giacomo has actively participated in student projects which promoted initiatives to raise awareness on urgent environmental issues within the European Union and worked with Amnesty International UK, collaborating in human rights protection campaigns. Giacomo is passionate about International Politics, Climate Change and Human Rights. Particularly, he is deeply interested in the multiple implications that Climate Change has on international security, justice and human rights.